Going into Thursday night's sectional final, the Western girls basketball players knew they would have to use their speed to get the better of Howard, a taller team that shot exceptionally well in the semifinal.
The No. 5 Doves took a five-point lead into halftime, but they used their pressure to score the first eight points of the second half and power a 53-34 victory over No. 11 Howard in the Class 4A North Section II final.
"We knew we had to run them, because we have more guards than bigs and we have the speed and we knew that was an advantage," said Doves forward JJ Williams.
The senior, who finished with 22 points, had the hot hand in the third quarter, hitting a transition bucket and adding a three-point play to boost the host Doves' lead to 27-17 less than a minute into the half.
Makayla Pickens hit a free throw and Jasmen Walton added a basket to run the lead to 30-17 with 4:54 to go in the quarter.
The Doves forced four turnovers during that stretch.
"We played our game," said Western coach Tasha Townsend, who wanted to keep the up-tempo pace throughout. "If you let [the Lions] stay still, they're going to knock down the shot, they're going to take their time, make layups. If we continue to run them, the same thing may not happen."
The Howard County champion Lions (22-3) had their chances to keep pace, but struggled with their shooting the entire game. In the first three minutes of the third quarter, they missed three uncontested layups and the Baltimore City champion Doves (22-1) grabbed 10 of the first 12 rebounds in the quarter.
"They're very athletic," Howard coach Scott Robinson. "We knew they were going to press and the shots that usually fall for us just didn't fall. Our thing all year has been shooting the ball. We have good shooters and tonight, they just didn't fall."
Sam Lewis led the Lions with 12 points, including two 3-pointers.
The Lions rallied to within 10 on Deonna Jones' basket to end the third quarter, but the Doves opened the fourth with a 7-point spurt. Walton's follow shot capped the run with five minutes to go and gave the Doves their largest lead until the final seconds.
With 1:47 left, Howard closed to within 45-34 on a Jones layup. The Lions were forced to foul to try to get the ball back, but the Doves won most of the rebounds and managed to run time off the clock with almost every possession.
"I think we were a little overwhelmed by their pressing," Lions sophomore forward Taylor Addison said. "After we started slowing down and getting into it later in the game, we started coming back, but unfortunately, there was only two minutes left."
In the North Region championship Saturday at 5 p.m., the Doves will host No. 7 Catonsville (23-2), a 63-22 winner over Dulaney in the Section I final. The winner moves on to the state semifinals Thursday at Towson University's SECU Arena.
Last year, the Comets defeated Western, 61-44, in the sectional final and the Doves are ready for the rematch.
"Not thinking and just playing," will be important against the Comets, Williams said, adding that some of her Doves play Amateur Athletic Union ball with some of the Comets.
"Some people had teammates on the opposite side [last year], so I feel as though we got that out of the way and we're just going to come in and play Western's game," she said.
The Lions, who return every player who started Thursday night, were coming off a 47-45 victory over Paint Branch in the sectional semifinal. For the past two years, Paint Branch had rolled over Baltimore-area teams en route to the state semifinals, beating Catonsville and Old Mill last year and Howard and Catonsville the previous year. Before Howard, Poly was the last local team to beat the Panthers, in the 2013 regional final.
Western 53, Howard 34
H—Kinsey 3, Addison 5, Lewis 12, Scott 7, Jones 5, Saunders 2. Totals 12 8-14 34.
W—Walton 11, Williams 22, Walker 2, Pickens 6, Waters 6, Johnson 6. Totals 17 13-25 53.
Half: W, 22-17.