It always had the tools and the talent, but after a shaky 1-5 start, the Hammond boys basketball team looked like it would fade into the background of the Howard County league race this season.
Seven wins in a row later, there is no doubt the Bears loom large in the rearview mirrors of the league's three top teams, Long Reach, Centennial and Howard.
Hammond continued its hot streak last week, slipping past Mount Hebron, 42-38, Wednesday, but then turned in its most impressive performance of the season Friday, easily dispatching first-place Long Reach, 71-54, leading the game from start to finish.
"We didn't play well against [Long Reach] the first time, and we felt like we could turn it around this time," said Hammond coach Mark Murray, whose team improved to 8-5 in the league and 11-5 overall with the win. "We played smart basketball. We only turned the ball over nine times and we continued to play better offensively, which has been the biggest difference from the beginning of our season."
That much has been evident in no one more than the Bears' top scorer, Datren Awkward. Awkward, a second-team all-county pick last season, turned in one of the better all-around performances in the county this year Friday, burning the Lightning for 26 points, 17 rebounds, six steals and five assists.
"He's really starting to play smarter and looking to drive the ball to the basket for layups," Murray said. "I think earlier in the season he was settling for a lot of jump shots, especially three-pointers. He can still take the mid-range jumper, but he's showing he can put the ball on the floor as well."
Hammond has continued to play suffocating defense as well, as Awkward and senior forward Damien Jones held the Lightning's Josh Gross, the league's leading scorer, to only six points. Jones chipped in 14 points and nine rebounds in the win.
All of it, Murray said, simply confirms what every coach believed at the beginning of the season: that the league is balanced and that it will be a fight to the finish.
"I don't think you can really call any game an upset right now," Murray said. "Everyone has played each other at least once and it's still tough to say who is going to beat whom."
Hammond gets another big test tomorrow against Howard (10-3, 12-5), which has one of the league's best guards in LaMar Parrish. Parrish scored 25 points in a 75-58 win over Oakland Mills Friday.