With six games left in the regular season, the first place Centennial girls basketball team might be tempted to begin counting down the wins left to a Howard County title. But after Monday night's hard fought, 54-46, win over visiting River Hill, the only thing the Eagles (11-1 league) are counting on is a battle every step of the way.
"It's a big win. But every win from now on is big," Centennial coach Bobby Macheel said. "Every team is going to be coming for us now that we lead the county...we have to bring our best game every night, and every team in the county is capable of beating us right now."
That reality was reinforced Monday night. Centennial's lead ballooned to 36-18 with a 5-0 run to start the second half, then the Eagles watched as the resilient Hawks (9-5) — coming off of a confidence building win over Howard (9-2) Friday night — chipped away over the final ten minutes.
By the end of the third quarter, River Hill had cut Centennial's lead to ten, at 40-30. Then, with a 9-2 run to start the fourth — highlighted by a Julia Collins three-pointer — the Hawks had battled all the way back to make it a one possession game. Julia Collins finished with a team-high 14 points.
"The whole first half we were really out of sync, but we fought back and fought back," said River Hill coach Teresa Waters, whose team had won five in a row after starting the season 0-3. "I think it took so much energy out of us to get back, we just couldn't get over the hump."
Just 20 seconds after Julia Collins' big three made the score 42-39 with a little more than four minutes to go, Centennial's Brittany Anderson (game-high 18 points) answered with her fifth and final three-pointer of the game to reestablish a comfortable cushion.
But River Hill would not relent. Jenna Collins (12 points) hit both free throws on a technical foul with 3:27 left, but Centennial's Anderson responded again, this time with two free throws of her own. Then, with three minutes left, Hawks guard Jess Hopkins (13 points) drained a three to make it a three point game again, at 47-44.
"River Hill did a great job of getting back in the game when they were down in the second half with their defensive pressure, crashing the boards. They made it hard for us. They were very resilient," Macheel said. "They took us out of our game a little bit."
But only twelve seconds after Hopkins' three-pointer, Centennial junior Kimmy Eads (6 points) hit a big jumper from the free throw line that finally forced the Hawks to foul on each remaining possession.
"We were definitely under some pressure and we knew we had to finish the game ... just slow the ball down and not be pressured," Eads said. "Being No. 1 in the county is a big step for us ... keeping that title is something we really want to do for ourselves."
The Eagles were five-for-six from the free throw line over the final two minutes, including two by junior captain Anna Mitchell (12 points), who also had two of her game-high 15 rebounds in crunch time.
"They pretty much controlled the boards. Most times we were one and done, because they were on the boards rebounding really well," said Waters, whose Hawks advanced to the state finals last year. "The twins (Julia and Jenna Collins) get in there and battle no matter what. They're always steadfast, even if their offense isn't going they're going to be in there giving their all defensively…they persevere."
Centennial senior point guard Alicia Hsieh (8 points) left the game with less than three minutes left with a lower leg injury after a collision, but is expected to be back soon.
"Once our point guard got hurt, that was a lot of motivation for us to finish the game, for her and for ourselves," Eads said.
Centennial senior captain Sara Downing also finished with eight points, including two first-half three-pointers.
The Eagles hit seven three-pointers and were 13-for-18 from the free throw line, while the Hawks hit three threes and were 11-for-17 from the stripe.
In addition to Howard and River Hill, Reservoir (10-2) — the only county team to beat Centennial this season — still has a chance to catch the Eagles over the final two weeks.
RH (9-5) 12 6 12 16 - 46
C (11-1) 16 15 9 14 - 54
RH: Julia Collins, 14; Jess Hopkins, 13; Jenna Collins, 12; Halley Seybold, 4; Sydney Poindexter, 3.
C: Brittany Anderson, 18; Anna Mitchell, 12; Alicia Hsieh, 8; Sara Downing, 8; Kimmy Eads, 6; Sammie Albornoz, 2.
Around the league
Long Reach 50, Hammond 34
LR (4-8, 6-9): Jeily Mata 14, Imani Sanders 13, Katelyn Peterson 9, Jaya Green 7, Gillian Engelbrecht 7.
Ham (1-13, 2-15): Jameelah Wallace 11, Shawnice King 10, Alexis Stratton-Bratcher 7, Keyuana Griffin 5, Shawntel King 1,
Wilde Lake 60, Glenelg 49
WL (5-8, 7-9)
Gle (5-8, 6-9)