When the girls basketball season began, Hammond coach Joe Russo probably didn't envision a flood of congratulatory phone calls in March, especially the ones he received from strangers.
But after you dethrone a dynasty like Mount Hebron in the biggest game in your program's history, you probably should expect an unusual reaction.
"People I don't even know have been congratulating me," said Russo on Sunday, still savoring his Golden Bears' 52-43 victory at Hebronin Friday night's Class 2A Region II championship game.
"We went out and played our best game of the year. It's kind of amazing, beating them (Hebron) over there," he added. "I finally backed up my words."
Russo said three months ago his Golden Bears could beat anybody, Hebron included. But in his wildest dreams, Russo could not have devised a more delicious scenario.
Hammond turned history on its head Friday night. While breaking Hebron's 22-game winning streak to advance to their first state tournament, the Bears (20-4), who had already lost to the Vikings twice this year, handed Hebron (22-2) its first defeat in a regional championship game since 1984. They also handedHebron its first home playoff loss since 1985.
How did they do it? By stealing the pages from Hebron's book. Come playoff time, one usually could bank on the Vikings to make the big shot or the crucial defensive play, the same way one could bet on Hebron's playoff opponents caving in against the Vikings. This is a program defined by the six state championship banners in its gym, five of them won in the lastsix years. This also is a program surrounded by a mystique.
Hammond shattered all of that by seizing Hebron's traditional role.
This time, Hebron's offense struggled -- committing 15 costly turnovers,shooting just 36 percent from the floor and scoring a season-low 43 points -- thanks to Hammond's quicker, outstanding, man-to-man defense. This time, every Hammond player seemingly stepped up to make a bigplay. This time, it was Hammond maintaining its poise when Hebron, despite obviously being outplayed, showed the heart of a champion by making a late run at the Bears.
Not that Hammond was overly surprised. The Bears fed off the confidence instilled in them by last month's 52-48 loss to Hebron in the second game between the two teams. After that loss, Hammond beat Glenelg and Howard to finish the regular season with a 6-1 streak, then won impressive playoff games over Pikesville and Towson before rolling into Hebron.
"That (the 52-48 loss to Hebron) was the biggest boost," said Hammond point guard Kacy Williams, who scored 12 points and added seven assists, six steals and five rebounds in another stellar effort. "We knew we could carry it over, and we continued to play well after that game."
From the beginning, Hammond was the looser, more confident team, while Hebron lookedtentative.
Part of Hebron's tightness could be explained by pointguard Erica McCauley, whose mild Achilles tendon injury from two weeks ago worsened during the week. She spent several hours Friday in physical therapy and showed up with her left foot heavily taped. McCauley, who couldn't drive off that leg and was in obvious discomfort on the floor while playing at a level Hebron coach Dave Greenberg described as 60 percent, scored five points, well below her 13.7 season average.
"That (McCauley's injury) was a definite factor, but that's not why we lost. The better team won Fri
day night," Greenberg said. "The shortcomings we had worried about all year showed up. Our athletic limitations, our bench limitations, our lack of good full-courtpressure. Great teams pull games out with great defense. We couldn'tstop them (Hammond) when we had to.
"I think that, while the season was like a joy ride at first for our girls, the pressure started getting to them as the season wound down."
Hammond ended Hebron's reign by responding at every key moment. The Bears made 42 percent of their shots, but seemingly 100 percent of their clutch shots.
Takethe crucial first quarter. After both teams struggled to score early, Hammond's Kristen Moraz got Hammond rolling by hitting four straight jumpers to give the Bears a 12-8 lead at quarter's end.
"I knew I had to be a factor tonight," said Moraz, who led the Bears with 17 points. "We didn't just come here to give them a good game."
The turning point came in the second quarter. Hebron took a 16-15 lead on a 12-footer by Kris Bryant with 5:44 left. After the lead changed hands twice, Tierney Clark had to leave the game with her third foul with Hebron on top, 20-19, and 3:53 left in the half. Moraz hit her sixth basket of the half to give Hammond a 21-20 lead, and Williams stepped up with her biggest plays of the game.