CATONSVILLE — The hugs began with just over a minute left in the game. Guard Christine Baer had hit the first of her two free throws, and with a nine-point lead and the rest of the starters coming out, it was time to start celebrating.
It became official right after sophomore Jackie Bardelli, usually the last player off the Old Mill bench, sank a free throw to complete the scoring. The top-seeded Patriots had done the expected, defending their Class 4A state championship with a 50-39 win over second-seeded Bowie Saturday at Catonsville Community College.
As Coach Pat Chance said after Thursday's 40-27 semifinal win over Gaithersburg, "These kids were like, 'If we don't at least get to the state finals, we haven't even had a good season.' "
It was, by all accounts, a remarkable season.
Only two teams -- St. Mary's and Broadneck -- lost to the Patriots by fewer than 10 points during the season. Only Howard County's Mount Hebron defeated them, and that was in a Christmas tournament.
Old Mill won its last 20 games to finish at 25-1 and ranked No. 1 in the metro area. It became only the second 4A team, beside Broadneck in 1989 and 1990, to win back-to-backtitles.
The Patriots didn't disappoint. They were every bit as good as advertised.
"There's no other word for it than 'great,' " said forward Cindy Davenport, describing how she felt Saturday. She as easily could have been referring to her own play in the tournament. She had a season-high 17 points and six rebounds Thursday, 10 reboundsand nine steals to go with three points in the finals.
"This is exciting, very exciting," said Baer, who led Old Mill with 12 points Saturday, including 5-of-6 shooting from the line. "It's even better because it's two times in a row."
And because the Patriots removed the only doubt still hanging over the team during the tournament. They didn't come unglued when their lead began to shrink, rather than expand, over the course of a game.
It was as if Old Mill had been winning close games all season, rather than the laughers that had Chance giving practically everyone on the team equal playing time.
Gaithersburg methodically cut into a 14-0 Old Mill lead and got within two points, 23-21, midway through the third quarter. But the Patriots answered with a bevy of three-pointers, layups and free throws that had the lead back up to 11, 32-21.
Another fast start Saturday had Old Mill ahead, 9-0, before some frigid shooting from the Patriots allowed Bowie to climb back into contention.
With Old Mill making just 16 of its 73 shots from the field, the Bulldogs forged a 33-33 tie late in the third quarter. But that would be the last run from Bowie,which was outscored, 17-6, the rest of the way.
"I couldn't believe we were letting them back in the game," said guard/forward Stacy Himes. "I was just like, 'Guys, we've got to get up, we've got to get the lead back.' "
They did, of course, and against a team that Davenport and Baer said was more physical than the Patriots are used to seeing.
"We were getting hammered around a lot, and they were pulling our shirts," Davenport said. "We just tried to do the best we could to fight them off and get open. Our shots weren't falling, and ourshot selection wasn't real good, but we did what we could and came out with a win."
"It was a lot rougher out there than we've ever seen," Baer said. "Bowie's a pretty rough team, and they were pushing us around a lot. We really don't see that in our county that much. We play more fundamentally and with more finesse. There's not as much pushing around under there."
The Patriots will lose just two playersto graduation, so maybe they'll see Bowie again in next year's tournament.
After all, they'll be the favorites not only to return to Catonsville, but to make it three in a row. The expectations will be higher than ever.
"It's true," Chance said. "We'll just have to seewhat we can do. I'm sure we won't just say we're going to come back.We want to come back, and I think we'll work to get back."