Mount Hebron and Hammond already have proven they are the class of the county. Tonight, when the two girls basketball rivals meet, they will provide another hint as to who is the league's best, and who is more primed for the Class 2A state playoffs next month.
On paper, this is a dream matchup. It's third-ranked Hebron vs. fourth-ranked Hammond. It's Hebron's savvy and sound fundamentals vs. Hammond's impressive size, depth and athleticism. It's the league's two best defenses and top point guards -- Hebron's Erica McCauley and Hammond's Kacy Williams. It's two great teams meeting for a second time in what should be a preview of the Class 2A Region II championship game.
"In all honesty, if we win, we're in good shape to win the county, but that's not the one we really want," Hebron coach Dave Greenberg said. "It should be a great test for us and for them."
Both teams are playing championship-caliber ball. Hebron (15-2, gunning for its 13th county title and 10th undefeated county season under Greenberg, is headed in that direction. It has won 13 straight. It is averaging 58.6 points against the county, giving up 32.1 points a game, and has yet to surrender 40 points to a county opponent.
Hammond (13-3, 8-1) has lost only once in its past 10 games. That came four weeks ago against the Vikings, 41-35. Since then, the Golden Bears have reeled off six straight victories. They are scoring 58.2 points against the county while giving up 30.8.
Tonight, the Bears revisit the gym where they upset the Vikings last March in the regional final, a 52-43 victory that denied Hebron a shot at a state-record seventh state title and sparked Hammond to its first state crown.
"We're playing the best basketball we've played all year, and we'd like to see that carry over for the next three weeks," Hammond coach Joe Russo said. "I hope it's a repeat of last year. We're real confident that we can beat them. If we get hot, I can't see them beating us."
Offensively, the Bears are hot. Over the past two weeks, they've broken out of a month-long shooting slump. They've shot 60, 62 and 51 percent in their past three victories.
The hottest hand belongs to senior guard/forward Kristen Moraz. After struggling for much of the season, Moraz has scored 47 points in her past three games. Russo would love to see her repeat last year's playoff performance. In the regional final at Hebron, she hit her first five shots to get the Bears rolling.
The most impressive thing about Hammond's offense has been its balance. Williams, despite struggling at times, still leads the team with a 12.7 scoring average to go with her team-high 4.4 assists and 5.0 steals. Moraz (10.7 points), guard Tiki Nicholson (10.1), Sonia Keiner (9.7) and Tameka Harrison (7.8) all handle their share of the scoring chores.
Defensively, Hammond's primary task is to keep McCauley from dominating. Even a fine defensive effort from Nicholson last month failed to prevent McCauley from hurting the Bears with three three-pointers and 12 points.
"I have a lot of confidence in Tiki guarding her [McCauley], but who knows? She could start hitting those bombs, anyway," Russo said.
All five Hebron starters are hitting at least 40 percent of their shots, but the league's top shooter is McCauley (12.5 points), who has re-established herself as the county's premier player.
She needs eight points to hit 1,000 for her career. She is hitting 41 percent of her three-pointers. And her ability to distribute the ball on the wing to Emily Yanero (12.2 points) and inside to Kristen Lloyd (9.1) has kept Hebron opponents off-balance. McCauley is averaging 3.1 assists and just 2.0 turnovers.
Hebron's usual cast of role players is thriving again. Seniors Sandra Benson and Tierney Clark are perfect examples. Benson has sacrificed some offense while becoming the Vikings' top rebounder (7.0). Clark has become a three-point threat, but still concentrates on playing some of the best man-to-man defense (3.7 steals) in the county. She hopes to make life as difficult for Williams tonight as she did last month, when she held Williams to three points.
The game could be decided on the benches, and both teams are well-equipped there. For Hammond, senior Samantha Andersch offers a defensive spark. Freshman forward Kellye Townsend brings her stout, 5-foot-10 presence to the paint, where she is averaging 7.0 points and 6.3 rebounds in just 15 minutes per game. A big rebounding game from her could push Hammond over the top.
Hebron's bench features freshman Alisha Mosley, who gives the Vikings a dimension they lacked last year -- someone to run the offense should McCauley require a breather. Her quickness also makes her a threat to go to the basket at any time. And sophomore guard Kathy Doyle, who was virtually invisible last season and early this year, is coming on strong. She has scored 30 points in her past four games.
"We've got to do three things. We've got to seal them [Hammond] out on the boards to limit their second shots. We've got to protect the ball and we've got to play great defense," Greenberg said. "What matters the most is that we play hard and play well."