Hammond hopes to ride wave to 2nd state title in row Bears meet Central in semifinal today

March 12, 1993|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,Staff Writer

A year ago, the Hammond Bears surprised observers by rolling into the Class 2A girls basketball tournament with no seniors, no history of going that far and little grasp of how high the stakes were.

"I can still remember Tameka [Harrison, then a freshman] saying she felt like this [the states] was just another game," Hammond coach Joe Russo said.

The Bears' youthful exuberance served them well. Buoyed by its upset of defending state champion Mount Hebron in the regional finals, Hammond carried that momentum to a glorious conclusion by winning its first state championship.

Things are different this time, sort of. The Bears head into today's 5 p.m. semifinal against Central (19-6) at UMBC with the same 20-4 record they had at this point last year.

They are riding another emotional playoff victory over Mount Hebron, which, like last year, came after Hebron had beaten the Bears twice during the regular season to win the county title. And they are on a three-week roll that brings back more memories of last season.

You would think the Bears would be feeling more pressure the second time around. After all, they are the top-seeded, defending state champs, and they know how tough it is to repeat. But Russo says that's not the case.

"It's going to be a lot tougher this year, but we're pretty relaxed. I'm not even nervous. It's weird," Russo said. "There's no pressure. When we beat Hebron and proved to everybody that last year wasn't a fluke, our pressure was over. That's how the girls feel."

Hammond has good reason to feel confident. The Bears' mixture of size, quickness, depth and, above all -- balance -- has them poised to defend their title. In its first test, Hammond must get past a Central team that is making its first state appearance under 22-year-old rookie coach Quentin Addison.

The Falcons present Hammond with several potential matchup problems, particularly inside with 6-1 junior center Latia Howard and outside with senior point guard LaKeisha Cooper.

Howard, a three-year starter, is one of the top players in Prince George's County. She is averaging 23 points, 12 rebounds and 5.5 blocked shots and passed the 1,000-point mark this season. Howard likes to camp in the low post, but also is comfortable shooting from the wing or even playing at point guard occasionally.

Cooper, 5-9, brings the same kind of versatility to the floor. She averages 19 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists and can play all of the guard and forward positions.

Those two are also the sparks for a defense that forces an average of 20 turnovers.

"That big girl [Howard] and that point guard [Cooper] worry me," said Russo, whose team averages 5-9 but has no one taller than 5-10. "We've had problems with agile, big girls in the past."

Addison said: "We like to play pressure defense, and we've had one of the toughest schedules in Central Maryland."

A key matchup tonight will be in the hands of Hammond guard Tiki Nicholson, who has become one of the county's defensive specialists. She will guard Cooper.

Hammond also has been lifted by the resurgent play of junior point guard Kacy Williams. After struggling offensively for parts of the past two months, Williams has come up big in the playoffs, with 25 points in two games, to go with 17 assists and 12 rebounds. If Williams (12.1 points, 6.8 rebounds, 5.1 assists, 4.5 steals) performs this weekend the way she has lately, Hammond will be difficult to stop.

Williams is only one of five starters who average double figures in scoring and who enjoy crashing the boards. Nicholson (10.2 ppg, 4.9 rpg), Sonia Keiner (10.0 ppg, 6.9 rpg), Kristen Moraz (11.0 ppg, 4.0 rpg) and Harrison (10.2 ppg, 6.3 rpg) take turns hurting opponents.

Then there's freshman 5-10 forward Kellye Townsend, who has emerged as an important spark off the bench.

"We're going to sit back in our half-court man defense. We probably won't press them [Central] until we see how well they handle the ball," Russo said. "Our defense is the key. If we play well on defense, they're not going to beat us."

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