HOWARD COUNTY, MD — All season long, River Hill has prided itself on its defense. The Hawks have allowed fewer than 40 points per game to its opponents this winter, and as a result coach Teresa Waters’ young team has found ways to win despite not having a lights-out shooter or a particularly high-scoring offense.
The defensive-first mentality carried over into the Hawks’ home game against Calvert Saturday afternoon with the 2A South regional championship on the line. Only this time, River Hill got a lights-out performance offensively from junior guard Kennedy Clark, who scored a career-high 23 points — including 12 on four 3-pointers in the second quarter alone to give the Hawks a comfortable lead — en route to a 54-40 victory.
It’s the Hawks’ first regional championship since 2013 and sixth in program history. They will play Hereford Friday at 3 p.m. at Towson University’s SECU Arena for a shot to win its first state title since 2006. River Hill is 4-1 in state semifinal games.
Each player got a chance to cut down a piece of the net following the win, which Waters said she always believed was possible.
“I did but they didn’t,” she said. “I always knew there was something special about them and I think they started to believe it as time went on. But I always knew there was something special about them.”
The Hawks’ defense — as well as their offensive woes — was on full display in the opening minute of the game. They won the opening tip but proceeded to miss five shots after corralling four offensive rebounds. After forcing a turnover, they missed five more shots to start 0-10 from the field in the first four minutes.
Despite that, the score was tied at two before they made their first basket, and they eventually took a 13-8 lead into the second quarter thanks to seven consecutive points, including a floater to beat the buzzer, from freshman guard Anihya Smith (nine points).
“I was concerned,” Waters admitted. “But again, when shots aren’t falling you’ve got to make stops and you’ve got to play defense. That’s the bottom line.”
Calvert cut the deficit to 15-13 after Kensley Benjamin nailed a three and a drove in for a layup, but that was as close as the Cavaliers would get the remainder of the game because that’s when Clark found her rhythm from distance. She made four threes in the span of five minutes and then dished to a wide-open Saniha Jackson (11 points) in the paint for an easy bucket after Calvert started to close in on her.
Just like that, the Hawks (18-7) were riding high on a 14-4 run and took a 32-22 lead into the break. Clark, despite her red-hot shooting, credited the team’s defense for her scoring binge.
“I think it was our defense. It really helped up move throughout the plays and [for] our offense to swing the ball and get on fast breaks,” said Clark, who came in averaging 9.9 points per game and had a previous season-high of 17. “It really helped us share the ball.”
Calvert coach Tim Contee said several defensive breakdowns led to Clark’s streak. He said it was the difference in the game.
“They were kind of deep threes,” he said. “... She went off. Other than that, I didn’t see anything that necessarily tipped the scale either way.”
Senior forward Emily Masker’s layup with 5 minutes, 11 seconds left in the third quarter extended River Hill’s lead to 38-23, but the Cavaliers did enough to not let the game slip away. Their shot at a comeback, however, took a blow when Mia Kidwell left the game with an ankle injury late in the third stanza and did not return.
The Hawks led by 12 to start the fourth quarter when Masker (11 points) nailed a 3-pointer and Clark got hot again. She scored on a floater and then a layup before swishing her fifth three of the day to spark a 10-0 run, which allowed Waters to empty the bench in the final minutes.
“I think Kennedy really stepped up for us in a big way,” Waters said. “She hit some crunch threes and that really helped us to stay in the game because I told the girls that Calvert wasn’t going away.”
2A South region championship
RH (18-7): Clark 23, Masker 11, Jackson 11, Smith 9.
C (15-9): Bess 16, Benjamin 9, Jones 8, Commodore 7.
Half: 32-22 RH.