It's awfully early in the basketball season for a league game to have this much meaning, but No. 10 River Hill's 44-35 victory at No. 14 Howard on Monday gave the Hawks a little extra room to breathe.
Coming into the game, the River Hill (9-2) was the only team undefeated in the Howard County league. The win over the Lions boosted the Hawks to 8-0 in the league and gave them at least a two-game edge on every other county team. The Lions (9-2), who lost before Christmas to Atholton, dropped to 6-2 in the league.
"It is early, but this is a big win for us," River Hill senior Vicki Rowe said. "This is the strongest team we've seen in the county so far, so it's really nice for us to come out with a 'W,' especially in an away game."
The Lions' aggressive defense kept the Hawks close until the fourth quarter when follow shots by Jordan Masker and Julia Collins boosted River Hill's lead to 30-22 just over a minute into the quarter.
That sparked a 12-2 Hawks run as they outrebounded Howard, 12-4, during that stretch.
"That spurt at the beginning of the fourth and then there was one possession after that where they got three or four offensive rebounds — they were big," Howard coach Scott Robinson said. "They really hurt us on the boards at the beginning of the fourth quarter."
River Hill, a Class 3A state finalist last season, outrebounded the Lions, 51-31, in a game in which both teams struggled to establish any kind of offensive rhythm.
"My coach [Teresa Waters] always tells us to do the little things like boxing out, especially in the fourth quarter when everyone is tired," Rowe said. "I'm really proud of my girls for doing the little things such as boxing out and playing hard-nosed defense."
The Hawks had several six-point leads earlier in the game, but with Masker and Collins providing the early fourth-quarter spark, they ran the margin as high as 13 when Megan Sterling hit two free throws with 2:44 to go.
The Lions rallied on Anne Kinsey's basket and 6-foot center Sydney Biniak's 3-pointer to pull within 38-30 with 1:49 to go. Kinsey, a junior guard who finished with 16 points, added a 3-pointer and a pair of free throws down the stretch. The Lions, however, could not get closer than within seven.
In the final 2:44, the Hawks hit eight of 12 free throws to hold onto their lead. Sterling went 6-for-8 from the free-throw line in the fourth quarter and finished with 12 points — nine from the line.
"Their guards are very good," Robinson said of Sterling and twins Julia and Jenna Collins, "plus they've got good size and they're strong. They're a very difficult team to try to defend."
The Lions will get another chance when they meet the Hawks at River Hill in the regular-season finale on Feb. 14.
RH—Rowe 10, Masker 6, Ju.Collins 12, Sterling 12, Je.Collins 4. Totals 14 14-26 44.
H—Kinsey 16, Hoesman 1, Gilmore 7, Batterton 2, Biniak 7, Walls 2. Totals 10 12-23 35. Half: RH, 18-13.