Joe Russo was at a loss for words.
He had spent the final, pulsating minutes of Saturday's 2A girls basketball championship game coaching from his knees, seemingly praying for his Golden Bears to hold off Glenelg.
Minutes later, while his girls celebrated their 56-51 victory at Catonsville Community College, Russo struggled to describe the magnitude of their accomplishment.
"How did we do this? Can you believe this?" Russo asked.
"State champions," Russo added, shaking his head as he looked at the championship trophy. "The first one (girls basketball title) in school history. The first one I've ever won. It's just overwhelming to me right now. I'm so proud of those kids. I can'tsay enough about them."
Hammond's actions already had spoken volumes. Despite a roster that featured no seniors and starters that included two freshmen (guard Tiki Nicholson and forward Tameka Harrison) and two sophomores (point guard Kacy Williams and forward Sonia Keiner), Hammond bucked odds that say a young team can't go this far.
How did the Bears, mere babies in high school basketball years, do it?How did they turn a 1-21 disaster two years ago into a 22-4 dream ride this year?
An infusion of talent over the last two years certainly was a key factor. Quickness, conditioning and terrific, man-to-man defense explain the state title to a great extent.
But the crucial ingredient in Hammond's run to the title was its poise. Although its starters average only 15 years of age, Hammond's playoff cool was the stuff of seniors.
Take the final five minutes of Saturday's championship battle with Glenelg. The Gladiators, led by seniors Tanissa Dorsey, Jenny Leedom and Sarah Jones, had fallen behind in each half by 12 points, yet had refused to go quietly. Midway through the final period, Hammond held a 50-43 lead, but with Williams, Keiner and Harrison playing with four fouls, the Bears faltered.
A six-point run by Glenelg, thanks to a full-court press that produced two steals and two easy baskets, closed the gap to 50-49 with 3:32 left. Dorsey -- who wound up a fine career with a sensational 22-point effort -- then stole another inbounds pass and was fouled by Harrison, who departed the game with 3:28 left.
Dorsey missed the front end of a one-and-one that could have tied the game, and the Bears rebounded and called a timeout.
Then, the Bears showed senior presence again. Williams, who had not scored after posting 12 points in the first half, responded with the game's biggest basket, a running six-footer in the lane that gave Hammond a 52-49 lead. Glenelg missed its next two shots, and Nicholson and Keiner scored after grabbing offensive rebounds to secure the title.
"They could have died right there," Russo said. "They panicked a little bit, but they didn't lose their composure."
Which sums up the Bears' storybook finish. It's easy to forget how fast this team grew up. It's easy to forget that in midseason, Hammond suffered an 18-point defeat to Mount Hebron, a one-point setbackto Glenelg and a 16-point loss to Howard, all in the space of two weeks. After a 10-0 start, the Bears suddenly had lost three of four games.
"At that point, I started to question how good we were," saidRusso. "I was aggravated, trying to make some changes, and they (hisplayers) thought I was putting too much pressure on them," he added."They were afraid to make mistakes. Once we got that ironed out, we were OK."
Once Russo committed to Nicholson and Harrison as starters, the Bears started clicking. A 6-1 finish in the regular season gave them momentum. The only loss during that stretch, a 52-48 defeat to Hebron, gave Hammond its biggest confidence boost going into the playoffs.
Hammond easily beat Pikesville and Towson before delivering their biggest blow, a 52-43 defeat at Hebron in the Region II finals. Hammond took a nine-point lead early in the second half, then withstood a stirring second-half rally by the two-time, defending state champs, who crept to within 39-38 at the six-minute mark.
Logic said the Bears should have fallen apart right there. Instead, they held together and handed Hebron its first home playoff defeat in seven years.
"That was the biggest game of the year," said forward Kristen Moraz, the lone junior starter who scored a season-high 17 points against Hebron and followed it with an outstanding state tournament (23 points, 22 rebounds). "When we beat them (Hebron), we felt we could do anything. We knew we could beat excellent teams. And we showed it here (at Catonsville)."
As did everyone. Williams, superb all year,wound up with 29 points, 15 assists, 15 steals and 12 rebounds in the tournament. Keiner (16 points, 17 rebounds) and Harrison (13 points, nine rebounds) were steady. Nicholson finished a five-game playoff run (83 points) with 30 points and 14 rebounds in the final two games.