Two good things happened when the Maryland Hoopmasters girls AAU team beat the North Wisconsin Thunder on July 25 for the 16-under championship of the Ohio Basketball Exposure Tournament in Atlanta.
First, this was billed as a national championship tournament, so its win in the 32-team field made it a national titlist. But what was more important for the players themselves was the fact that this was a tournament in which hundreds of college coaches and scouts, all the way up to Division I, were there to look for talent.
And they found some on coach LaTonya Hardy’s Carroll County-based Hoopmasters team as it took four of its five games to win the championship.
Right now, the girls are junior varsity basketball players at Century, Francis Scott Key, Liberty, Winters Mill, and other high schools outside the county. But even this early, some have sparked interest. They will be on college radar screens for the rest of their high school careers.
The Hoopmasters had a very good summer season, so its winning performance in Atlanta was no surprise. It was second in Hoopmasters’ annual Caviness Classic which was held May 4-5 at Liberty High. It also finished second in early June’s Maryland Flames Tournament in Boyds.
The girls made it to the semifinals of the Run 4 the Roses tourney July 5-8 in Louisville, Kentucky.
The squad then finished first in its pool at the July 9-13 Battle of the Boro tournament, also in Louisville. However, the Hoopmasters were eliminated when they lost their opening game in the championship round.
While her team hadn’t won any tournaments, its coach felt it was playing better and better, even in its two most recent tournaments where it faced very strong competition. Hardy felt that excellence would carry over.
“I wouldn’t have thought they were going to win (in Atlanta). But once they did well in Kentucky, I realized they had a chance to win there,” Hardy said.
They opened their three-game pool play series by leading all the way and beating the South Bend Breakers 48-35.
Guard Jess Littlejohn of Liberty High paced the winners with 18 points. Michelle Parker, who attends Mount de Sales in Baltimore County, led the team with 12 rebounds. Guard Libby Kiley had six steals to pace the squad, and Emma Wivell led with four assists. Kacy Nottingham had seven rebounds and two steals.
Hoopmasters won their second game 44-37 over Tennessee Sol. They led until the middle of the second half when the Tennessee squad pulled ahead. However, Hardy’s squad recovered to win.
Littlejohn was again a main force, leading the team with 17 points and adding six steals.
South Carroll’s Sarah Vaught had eight rebounds and three blocks. Parker was again strong on the boards, hauling down 13 rebounds. Kiley had nine points, four blocks, and four steals.
This win clinched a spot in the finals. And it’s a good thing, because Hoopmasters dropped a 45-43 squeaker to Peak Performance in their final pool game.
They had a history with this opponent.
In Kentucky, Hoopmasters had beaten Peak Performance 52-48 to give themselves a perfect pool record and make the finals. This time in Atlanta, on a late steal and basket, Peak Performance got the win, giving itself a 3-0 pool record.
Hoopmasters, at 2-1, was nevertheless in the finals.
In that earlier Kentucky game, Wivell had poured in 31 points to bury Peak Performance. In this game, it keyed on the rising sophomore from Catoctin and slowed her down. However, her teammates picked up the slack.
Littlejohn led with 16 points; Parker and Vaught each had nine rebounds. Kay Magill had five points and a steal.
Hardy’s team had it easy in its first game of the championship round. It won by forfeit when its scheduled opponent decided not to play.
Hoopmasters did play a game, however. This was against Truth 16, from West Chicago. That squad had also received a forfeit in its semifinal tournament game. It proved to be too much for the local kids.
But Hardy said, "that scrimmage helped us get ready for our championship game.”
However, as things turned out, there wasn’t much to get ready for. Hoopmasters dominated the North Wisconsin Thunder 49-23 in that one.
“Everybody did their job," Hardy said. “The rebounders rebounded, the defenders defended, and the scorers scored. That how we won.”
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The coach noted that about half of the girls who played in the tournament have gotten an email or phone call from a college representative showing interest. And while these players are only in the early stages of their high school careers, it’s clear that the next step after high school is starting to beckon.