Rare underdog relishes role Hammond not a favorite: Coach Joe Russo likes not having the pressure of everyone thinking his team is going to win the state title.

March 07, 1996|By Stan Rappaport | Stan Rappaport,SUN STAFF

Say it ain't so, Joe.

The Hammond girls basketball team, winners of three of the past four Class 2A state championships, an underdog?

"I love it," said Hammond coach Joe Russo. "We've always been the favorite, except for the first year, and now we're an also-ran. It's nice not to have the pressure on you that everybody thinks you're going to win."

Hammond (19-7) can play in its fifth straight state championship game with a victory in tomorrow's 3 p.m. semifinal against North Caroline (23-1) at UMBC.

But unlike the past two years, when the Golden Bears lost a total of four games, getting to the Final Four this season was not a sure thing.

"I'm pleasantly surprised," said Russo. "I knew we had the talent to do it. We were so erratic this season, but we've finally put five games together."

The Golden Bears beat county champion Wilde Lake by 21 points in the final regular season game, then won four straight in the region tournament -- including a three-point victory over the Wildecats in the final.

"That win [over Wilde Lake in the season finale] set the tone for the last part of the year," said Russo.

It also showed what a roller coaster season it's been for the lTC Golden Bears. Five days before the regular-season-ending win over Wilde Lake, Hammond had its poorest offensive showing of the season in a 34-22 loss against visiting Atholton.

"That was the worst game we've ever played," said Hammond junior Rene Hines, who leads the team with an 18-point average. "That game woke us up."

The No. 11 Golden Bears had won two straight county titles, but this year finished in a four-way tie for second. Hammond not only lost on its home court for the first time in four seasons, it had a better league record on the road (5-2) than at home (4-3).

"We were a little down after not winning the county," said Hines. "Now we have the chance to prove to ourselves that we can still win the states."

Hammond and North Caroline are similar in that each has two players who can dominate. Besides Hines, who averages 11 rebounds, the Golden Bears look to senior center Kellye Townsend, who averages 15 points and 13 rebounds.

"Kellye [5-foot-11] and Rene [6-1] have to step up and be offensive-minded," Russo said. "They need to score at least 30 points between them or we're going to be in trouble."

North Caroline, winners of 17 straight, counters with forward/center Shantwan Dowell, who averages 19 points and 10 rebounds, and point guard Kiana Lewis, who averages 18 points.

After a regular season filled with many blowouts, the Bulldogs have won three close playoff games, including a 64-60 victory over No. 12 Poly. North Caroline rallied from nine points down at the start of the fourth quarter for the victory.

"If Dowell [5-11] and Lewis [5-7] play well, they're tough to beat," said Poly coach Charlie Sullivan. "Both of them shot the ball well against us. We had a hard time stopping Dowell. She's very quick and handles the ball well, almost like a guard."

Said North Caroline coach Jackie Pinckens: "Kiana and Shantwan are going to have to continue to step up for us. Kiana is our top offensive player. She's a good one-on-one player. With Shantwan, as long as she stays focused, she's OK. If she becomes intimidated, she will hurt us a little bit."

Pinckens usually plays about eight players and "we like to run when we get the chance. I feel very confident right now. I've been pleased with this team all year."

Hammond has tournament experience on its side, and that could be a factor down the stretch. After beating Wilde Lake twice in the past five games, the Golden Bears feel confident about their chances.

"We've had to work hard to get where we are," said Hines. "As long as we play together as a team, I think we can do it."

"It's been an up-and-down season," Townsend said, "but I think we can do it. We've got to play together and keep our heads in the game."

Pub Date: 3/07/96

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