The race to decide the Howard County girls basketball county champion will come down to the final game of the regular season.
Howard, courtesy of a 57-50 victory over Long Reach, pulled itself into a tie for first place in the league standings with the Lightning on Monday evening.
Marisa Sanchez-Henry scored a team-high 18 points, leading a group of five players that scored eight or more points for a Lions team that avenged a four-point loss to Long Reach back in December.
“I think the girls came into tonight knowing where we stood and they really played hard. That’s a great team, with a lot of talent that is difficult to defend, so we knew we were going to have to be at our best” said Howard coach Scott Robinson, who is trying to lead the program to its fifth county title in the last six years. “This [county championship] is something that means a lot to these girls. They know the legacy and they want to try and continue it.”
Howard (12-3, 16-3) has a match-up left against Marriotts Ridge on Friday, while Long Reach (12-3, 13-5) is scheduled to play Glenelg that same day. If both teams win those contests, the two programs will share the county championship for a second straight year.
Lightning coach Kelli Cofield said she thought that the latest chapter in the rivalry between the two schools, which have now split meetings three straight seasons, lived up to the hype.
“This game was exactly what you would expect to see from the top two teams in the county. Both teams played well,” Cofield said. “Credit to Howard, I think you saw a little bit of that urgency at the beginning from them in terms of needing to win this game to have a shot at a county championship. We did a great job of answering after that, but just weren’t able to come all the way back.”
Lyric Swann (game-high 21 points) hit a 3-pointer in the first 90 seconds to stake Long Reach to an early lead, but it was all Howard after that for the rest of the first quarter and beginning of the second.
The Lions, which got strong early efforts from Gabby Scott (10 points), Emily Durkee (10) and Lauryn Russell (9), rattled off 11 straight points after the initial basket by the Lightning. By the opening minute of the second quarter — following a layup by Russell — Howard’s lead had ballooned to 14 points, 23-9.
“Fixing the little things [from the first time against them] really helped us get off to that fast start,” said Sanchez-Henry, who added eight assists to go along with her points.
Long Reach did regroup in the second quarter, methodically chipping away at its deficit to get all the way back to within five points, 29-24, at the half following a layup by Jaelyn Swann (6 points).
The Lightning later got as close as two points in the closing minutes of the third quarter following a pair of foul shots from Jalyn Richardson (7 points). But Howard made adjustments, including switching to a triangle-and-two defense that Robinson said he had put in specifically for this match-up.
The change helped Howard go on an 8-0 spurt between the end of the third quarter and beginning of the fourth to create a double-digit advantage once again. The Lightning never managed to get closer than four points the rest of the way.
“We had been practicing it and were waiting for the right situation. I felt like we needed something to slow them down in that third quarter and I thought the girls did a good job doing exactly that,” Robinson said.
The loss snapped an eight-game Long Reach winning streak, but Cofield said one game doesn’t derail all the good things her team has done over the last month.
“That winning streak that we put together, it put us in a position where we could take a hit like this and still be in very good position. So I think, while this is a game we definitely wanted, I don’t think the girls are down on themselves,” Cofield said. “We still control our destiny and really that’s all you can ask for.”
Howard 57, Long Reach 50
Ho (12-3, 16-3): Sanchez-Henry 18, Durkee 10, Scott 10, Russell 9, Harris 8, Malagar 2.
LR (12-3, 13-5): L. Swann 21, Ford 7, Richardson 7, J. Swann 6, Thompson 6, Streeter 3.
Tiffany Hooker set a new career high with 28 points, including five made 3-point shots, to help the Gators build an early lead and then hold on late for the victory over the visiting Eagles. Emily Dorn also had a big game for Reservoir with 13 points, 17 rebounds and four steals.
The Gators were ahead 33-16 at the half before Centennial caught fire in the third quarter to get itself back into it. Brook Anderson (16 points) led the charge, hitting three of her five 3-pointers on the game in that third period.
Ultimately, though, Reservoir made enough clutch baskets and foul shots — 5-for-8 in the final quarter — to hold off the comeback attempt.
“I’m impressed with how we held it together and made big baskets when we had to,” Reservoir coach Deb Taylor said. “We’re still looking for that entire 32 minutes, but this was a great step in the right direction.”