River Hill vs. Howard girls basketball

River Hill teammates pose for team pictures as they celebrate their win over Howard to clinch the county championship in girls basketball following a game at River Hill High School. (Brian Krista, Patuxent Publishing / February 14, 2013)

The last time River Hill had won the Howard County girls basketball championship was during the 2009-10 season.

Megan Sterling — then a freshman and the lone holdover from that team — remembers the feeling of being a champion, although she was on the bench for most of it.

“The last time I lost my voice from screaming so much,” Sterling said. “This time I actually got to run around on the court. We definitely have been rebuilding since then because we lost a lot of great players. To finally get back here my senior year, with all of these girls, is amazing.”

Clinging to a one-game lead over Howard entering the regular season finale Thursday, the Hawks needed to win or they would have to share the title with the Lions. River Hill got off to a fast start and held off a late rally for a 58-47 victory to earn the crown.

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“They work so hard and they are a great group of girls,” Hawks coach Teresa Waters said. “I’ve got a nucleus that has worked all year and the others understand their roles and give full effort.”

Sterling finished with a game-high 22 points, including 16 in the second half, to pace the Hawks (18-1, 19-3). Junior twins Jenna and Julia Collins added 17 and 10 points, respectively, to the cause.

This was a new experience for the Collins sisters, who were in middle school in 2010.

“I remember coming to the games and watching the team that season. They were amazing,” Jenna Collins said. “We definitely wanted to bring that feeling back to River Hill. We have it and we’re not going to let go of it anytime soon.”

Waters credited her senior class of Sterling, Jordan Masker, Vicki Rowe, Andrea Nichols and Tyler Triplett as a big reason her team was able to collect its ninth county title.

“The seniors stayed with the program when others did not because they thought it was too hard,” Waters said. “These seniors are not followers, but leaders. They weathered the storm and it will make them more successful in the long run.”

The Hawks led by as many as 10 points in the first quarter and entered halftime with a 30-24 advantage. But it was the opening minutes of the third where they began to pull away. Sterling nailed a 3-pointer, added a jumper and a free throw for a quick 6-0 run.

After a bucket by senior Jordan Masker, River Hill increased its lead to 43-32 entering the fourth quarter.

Howard (16-3, 19-3) tried to claw back into the contest over the final eight minutes. Thanks in part to an 8-0 run late in the fourth, the Lions shrank their deficit to 49-43 with 1:13 left in the game.

Jayda Gilmore (12 points) finished at the rim and Emma Hoesman had an old-fashioned three-point play during the spurt, but River Hill remained calm in the face of the rally.

The Hawks were able to knock down their free throws attempts over the final 60 seconds. Sterling and the Collins sisters combined to make 9-of-10 from the line to ice the game.

“All of my points were foul shots,” Jenna Collins said. “They were so clutch. I don’t think we’ve ever shot that well in a game before and I’m very proud of us. … It was so intense. We executed well and took advantage of the fouls. That’s the biggest reason that we won.”

Howard — which received a team-high 13 points from Anne Kinsey and 10 more from Sydney Biniak — had to play the final four minutes of the third quarter and the rest of the game without head coach Scott Robinson.

Robinson, who had not received a technical foul in three years with the team before tonight, was assessed a technical in the first quarter, then ultimately was ejected at the 4:22 mark of the third quarter after an assistant coach received a double technical.

It turns out that the teams were playing for more than a county championship. The winner would also clinch the top seed in the Class 3A East Regional playoffs that begin next week.

The playoff seeds will be determined this weekend, but it appears that Howard will also earn a three seed and earn a bye in the first round. The rivals could meet for a third time in the postseason.