The Hereford girls basketball team nipped Gwynn Park in the Class 2A North Region championship game, 54-52, and reached the state tournament for the first time since 1999, but it may not have been possible without a magic final minute of plays from Hereford junior Reese Harden.
Hereford (22-1) trailed 52-51 when Gwynn Park’s Kroix Dale sprinted toward the basket and scored an apparent basket that would have given the Yellow Jackets (20-5) a 3-point lead.
But, Harden stepped in front of her and drew a charge and the basket was waved off with 56 seconds left in the game.
“I just saw her coming and I just knew I could get to the spot where I had to get to and she just ran right into me, so I was so thankful and it pumped up our team and we ended up getting the W,” Harden said.
On Hereford’s next possession, Harden pulled up and swished a 15-footer with 37 seconds left to give the Bulls a 53-52 lead.
The Yellow Jackets were called for traveling before getting off a shot and Harden was fouled with 5.2 seconds and toed the line for a 1-and-1.
The first shot was good and the second one caromed off the back iron to Harden, who dribbled until the clock ran out.
She didn’t miss the shot on purpose.
“When the rebound came back in my hands I was ‘Thank goodness it did,’ ” said Harden, who scored all 14 of her game-high points in the final three quarters.
Coach Ellen Fitzkee knew she would be the one with the ball in the crucial moments.
“Our players look to Reese, she has the skill to do it, she had a little bit of rough start for us, but when the game is on the line, or when we do two-minute drills in practice and we try to anticipate situations like this, she’s the one that takes over, so she’s certainly capable of doing it and we do look for her to do it,” Fitzkee said.
Hereford also had key contributors in seniors Isabella Peterson (10 points, 13 rebounds) and Brynn Deluzio (10 points, seven rebounds, five steals, three blocked shots).
When Deluzio fouled out with 4:27 left in the fourth quarter, Libby May came off the bench and made clutch baskets.
She scored all eight of her points in the fourth quarter, with one of the biggest coming after a long in-bounds pass from Cameron Smith from the end line that pulled the Bulls within one, 52-51, with 1:15 left.
Smith contributed seven points and Rachel Saunders added five for the Bulls.
Gwynn Park opened the game by missing its first 10 shots, but they only trailed 6-2 after the first quarter when they connected on 1 of 14 field goals.
They had trouble penetrating the Bulls half-court trap.
“We are a defensive-oriented team, we put a lot of pressure on other teams and we try to take them out of their rhythm and out of what they like to do and hope that it shows on the scoreboard at the end of the game,” Fitzkee said.
Senior Denai Bowman heated up in the second quarter, when she scored nine of her game-high 16 points and the Yellow Jackets trailed, 19-16, at intermission.
Jacqueline Dianis (16 points) made three 3-pointers and scored 11 points in the third quarter and the Yellow Jackets built an 8-point lead that dwindled to 37-33 at the end of the quarter.
A 3-pointer by Smith, 15 seconds into the fourth quarter cut the deficit to one and set the stage for the thrilling finish.
One that senior Peterson and coach Fitzkee will never forget.
“It feels amazing, I’m so honored to be a part of this team,” Peterson said.
“This is great,” Fitzkee said. “Hereford went to the states in 1977, ‘82, ‘99 and I put ‘19 on the board — with a question mark.”
Harden and her teammates provided the answer.
Hereford will play River Hill on Friday, March 15 at 3 p.m. at Towson University’s SECU Arena.
Reese Harden 14, Brynne Deluzio 10, Isabella Peterson 10, Libby May 8, Cameron Smith 7, Rachel Saunders 5.
Gwynn Park 52
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Denai Bowman 19, Jacqueline Dianis 16, Kaylee Milburn 6, Kroix Dale 5, Racheal Turner 4, Jordan Tolson 2.