As Howard senior Emileigh Scott put it, Wednesday night's 4A North regional semifinal matchup against Western was the Lions' redemption game.
A season ago the Doves (20-4) eliminated Howard (22-1) from playoff contention with a double-digit win on their home court. On Wednesday, top-seeded Howard avenged that loss, and handed No. 2 Western a 74-51 defeat to move on to its first regional finals appearance since 2013.
"After losing to them last year we knew we had to come out strong," Scott said. "This was our redemption game. Me personally as senior, all the seniors on the team, we wanted to win because they put us out of playoffs last year. We knew we could do it and we just wanted to go out there, play hard and beat them."
The Doves held the Lions to just 34 points in the regional semifinal game a season ago, and on Wednesday Howard made sure not to have another flat start.
Sam Lewis opened up the night with a three to give the Lions the initial lead, which they relinquished just once the entire game.
Jasmen Walton was the catalyst for Western in the outing, as she finished with a game-high 23 points. She and Lewis both knocked down back-to-back threes at the start of the first quarter to tie the score at six.
"We knew they are so tough," said Howard coach Scott Robinson. "They are so tough on the boards, so did what we could to limit their shots. We knew they were great taking the ball to the basket, so we tried to negate that the best we could. And Jasmen Walton, I mean jeeze what a talent. We were worried about her, and she came out and hit three threes right away. She's so great at floaters. She has such great at body control."
All but one of the Doves' first quarter points came from beyond the perimeter. Treys by Martesha Smith, Naya Delaney and Destiny Hawks on consecutive possessions gave Western its first — and only — lead of the game at 15-14 with 3:20 remaining in the first.
The Lions started out in their typical man-to-man defense, but after Western started heating up from range, Robinson switched to a new zone defense, which they implemented just the day before at practice.
"We sort of gambled at the beginning and they made us pay, no doubt about it," Robinson said. "We actually put in another zone yesterday in preparation for them. Man-to-man is our bread-and-butter, but we just felt like this wasn't a team to play man-to-man against. But the biggest thing was us. They trap all over and us being able to handle the ball was really the key. They just hammer people on the boards. I think we tried to limit them as best we could."
Howard ended the first quarter strong and outscored the Doves 8-1. The Lions built on their cushion at the start of the second, netting five unanswered points, thanks to buckets in the paint by Deonna Jones and Courtney Furr.
Jones proved to be a difference maker off the bench, as she finished with eight points and eight rebounds in 16 solid minutes.
"Deonna was enormous," Robinson said. "We put her in there and said, 'Deonna rebound,' and she did. The last two games she gave us great minutes and that's the way she's been all year. When we've had people go out with injuries … she filled in, and D is right there in our rotation. She can step in at any time for any of those girls. On the boards she was awesome, and strong."
It took until 3:54 remaining for Western to score its first basket of the second quarter, but the Lions had extended their lead to 14 at that point.
A made free throw by Lianna Faulkner and two threes by Walton cut the deficit to 10 with about two minutes to play, but Jones came up big once again with another bucket in the paint to push Howard's advantage to 12 at halftime.
"I can't really say they did too much to limit us," said Doves coach Tasha Townsend. "We were getting beat up a lot and they were just looking for the calls, and we didn't get what we were looking for. They played a good game, that's all I can really say."
Jadia Jackson opened up the third quarter with a bucket for Western, but the Lions countered with an 8-0 run. Howard allowed just six points in the quarter and caused seven turnovers, while offensively kept piling on to its already large lead. Four-straight points by Scott to end the third extended the Lions cushion to 21 by quarter's end.
"The biggest thing for us I thought the girls played really hard," Robinson said. "I thought last year when we went down there we turned the ball over a ton. I thought we really handled the pressure really well and I thought we were much more composed when we got the ball. Last year we were just throwing them up there. This year we were really composed, gathered ourselves and went up strong. I think those were the real keys to the game."
The Doves kept fighting in the fourth and an 8-0 run midway through the period cut the deficit back down to 12, but Howard took advantage at the foul line.
The Lions made just three baskets in the fourth quarter, but after putting Western in the penalty at the end of the third they stayed aggressive and connected on 14 of 16 attempts from the charity stripe in the final eight minutes.
"It played a big part... It wasn't foul trouble. We weren't in foul trouble. They were just looking to get the same thing, that's all," Townsend said. "They came. They showed up. We did the best we could with what we had. I think they did good. They fought hard and that's all I can ask."
Scott led her team with 19 points and five rebounds, while Taylor Addison followed with 16 points and 10 boards. Lewis finished 13 points and nine rebounds, while Jenny Kinsey added six points and 10 boards.
"We have been working really hard during the preseason, regular season and postseason. It feels great," Scott said. "In my four years we haven't gotten this far and it just feels great to play as a team, win as a team and get past Western."
Although he was confident his team would pull out the victory, Robinson admitted he never perdicted the final double-digit win against the Doves.
"No, but I will say this, I think our schedule prepared us for this," Robinson said. "People have no idea how good the upper half of our league is. I think our schedule prepared us… and also our league prepared us for this. So I think it really says something with how good our league is too. I told the girls before the game too, we believed that we could win and they went out and proved it."
The top-seeded Lions won a coin toss prior to the playoffs, so they will host No. 1 Catonsville Friday at 6:30 p.m. with the winner moving on to the state semifinal game at Towson University on March 9.
"We know that [the state championship] is there, but we're just focusing on Catonsville," Scott said. "Having a home game is huge. It's just going to be a great game. When we heard we won the coin toss we were ecstatic, but we knew we had to get past Western first and now Catonsville. It's going to be a good, hard game."
Howard 74, Western 51
Ho (22-1): Scott 19, Addison 16, Lewis 13, Jones 8, Furr 7, Kinsey 6, M. Sanchez-Henry 5.
W (20-4): Walton 23, Johnson 8, Delaney 8, Hawkins 3, M. Smith 3, Waters 2, Jackson 2, Jackson 2, Faulkner 1, Pickens 1.
Half: 39-27, Howard.
Around the league:
Atholton 58, Stephen Decatur 23 (3A East semifinal)
The No. 3 Raiders went down to the Eastern Shore and solidified a spot in the 3A East finals game Friday after defeating the top-seeded Seahawks, 58-23.
Atholton held Stephen Decatur to just six first-half points, while also limiting the Seahawks without a scorer in double-figures in the game.
Francesca Vanegas nearly outpaced Stephen Decatur by herself. She finished with a game-high 17 points, while netting six in the first quarter and eight in the second half.
The Raiders led by 11 after the first eight minutes and extended their cushion to 14 at halftime, while holding the Seahawks to two made shots from the floor.
Stephen Decatur got its offense going in the third quarter, as it nearly doubled its production from the first 16 minutes in the period alone.
Ryan Jones had a big third quarter for Atholton, scoring six of her final 10 points, while Vanegas added four more points to help the Raiders to a commanding, 24-point cushion entering the fourth quarter.
Sofia Harrison had a solid day for the Raiders, as she followed Vanegas offensively with 13 points and recorded five of her points in the fourth. Zhuri Cannon added eight points, while Alexandra Hargertt chipped in with six.
Amya Mumford and Savannah Schultz led the Seahawks with eight and seven points, respectively.
The win pits Atholton against top-seeded Long Reach in the 3A East Region finals. The two split their regular season meetings, with the Lightning defeating the Raiders in overtime on Jan. 6, and Atholton beating Long Reach by 21 on Feb. 17.
A (18-5): Vanegas 17, Harrison 13, Jones 10, Cannon 8, Hargrett 6, Beckwith 2, Bathras 2.
SD: Mumford 8, Schultz 7, Engle 2, Sass 2, Beress 2, Jones 2.
Half: 25-6, Atholton.
LR (19-5): K. Williams 27, Briggs-Hall 10, L. Swann 10, D. Williams 6, Thompson 3, Joyce 2.
G (17-78): Foster 13, Johnson 7, Wolfrey 6, Butera 4, LePage 3, Renehan 2, Gillespie 1.
Half: 30-17, Long Reach.
MR (18-6): S. Blalock 26, Sullivan 9, Conroy 8, C. Blalock 6, Bryan 3, Bergquist 2, E. Morath 2, H. Morath 2.
WM (12-13): Snyder 13, Petela 11, Hill 7, Wells 6, Stitely 5, Cook 3.