The River Hill girls basketball team was no stranger to its Class 3A state semifinals opponent Friendly. The Hawks narrowly edged the Patriots, 40-36, in the IAABO Board 134 Christmas Tournament earlier in the season.
River Hill was shut out in the third quarter of that game but rallied over the final eight minutes to earn the victory. In Thursday night’s rematch, the Hawks used another late run to hold on for a 52-43 win at UMBC’s RAC Arena.
“It probably helped seeing them before, but we knew they would be better,” River Hill coach Teresa Waters said. “We knew they were a much different team just like we are different. They have two Division I prospects on the team and its not the style of play we see in Howard County but we continued to plug away.”
The Hawks improved to 23-3 on the season and return to the 3A state championship on Saturday at 8 p.m. where they will face Aberdeen — a 71-50 winner over Damascus in the other semifinal.
The defending champion Eagles defeated River Hill, 62-48, in last year’s title game.
Seniors Vicki Rowe and Megan Sterling paced the Hawks with 12 points each, while junior Julia Collins added 10. Central Connecticut State signee Chayla Lewis finished with 13 points and 10 rebounds for the Patriots — who were riding a 12-game winning streak.
River Hill entered the 3A tournament as the shortest team among the four semifinalists. The biggest key to victory would be boxing out and rebounding strong against Friendly’s 6-foot-1 duo of Janay Carter and Saliha Abd Al-Malik.
The Hawks handled business on the glass. Senior forward Jordan Masker grabbed a game-high 12 rebounds, while Rowe added nine more to help their team outrebound the Patriots, 40-31.
“We knew going into this game that they were a lot bigger than we are, so we knew the only way that we were going to get rebounds is to work our butts off,” Rowe said. “We came in prepared and knew what we had to do.
“It’s senior year, we don’t want to leave the court with any regrets and we got the job done.”
The teams traded baskets early on in a close game before River Hill ended the half on an 11-2 run. Sterling nailed a 3-pointer to spark the spurt. Rowe made three foul shots, Masker added a pair of free throws and Julia Collins hit a three of her own with five seconds left for a 27-18 advantage at the break.
The Hawks began the second half the same way they ended the first. Collins finished a fast break layup and was fouled. Then she added a put back to stretch the lead out to 32-18.
Friendly was able to stop the bleeding before the game got too far away from them. The Patriots found their shot from behind the arc and hit three 3-pointers, the last by Marche Cisco, to cut the deficit to 38-34 entering the fourth quarter.
The Prince George’s County school fought all the way back and took its first lead of the game, 39-38, with just under six minutes left in regulation on a pair of foul shots by Carter.
“We just have to keep our mental toughness because even though the game got really close, it could have been easy for us to just freak out and completely stop playing basketball,” Rowe said. “We always say the fourth quarter is our best quarter because you’ve got to have the endurance and the mental toughness to make it through the whole 32 minutes.”
River Hill’s deficit lasted just 16 seconds before Sterling responded with a drive to the basket to reclaim the lead. The Hawks never lost that advantage over the final five minutes.
“We started off strong but they are a great team,” Sterling said. “We had to work hard, stick together and keep on pushing to get back to the big game.”
River Hill arrived to UMBC early and had a chance to watch Aberdeen before the start of their game. It will be much of the same on Saturday night as the Eagles are the taller team but that doesn’t seem to bother the Hawks — who are in search of their first state title since 2006.
“We had a chance to watch Aberdeen and they looked good,” Rowe said. “I’m glad we got to see them play. We’re very motivated this year … I’m really excited for the opportunity and I’m sure my teammates are too.”