In the beginning of the season, Hammond relied on its explosive offense to put away teams, but Wednesday at Long Reach, the Golden Bears showed how much they've improved on the defensive side of the ball by keeping the Lightning to their lowest scoring mark of the season.
"Our defense has been getting better," said Hammond coach Mike Salapata after the 60-41 win. "We were bad for a while; we were just outscoring people. But we have slowly and steadily playing better man, playing better zone and we're getting there."
Long Reach (9-8, 10-10) – who had entered the game playing some of its best basketball as of late, winning six of seven – and the Golden Bears traded buckets throughout the first quarter and entered the second period knotted at 12.
But Hammond (14-2, 16-3) tightened up their defense in the following eight minutes and limited the Lightning to three points in the quarter and one made shot from the field.
"We had some confidence. We've been playing better and we've been a different basketball team in the second half of the year," said Long Reach coach Al Moraz Jr. "Obviously, six of seven – we were six of eight after tonight's loss – definitely has given us some extra confidence, but I think we just had a hard time putting the ball in the hole. The second quarter, just scoring three points really hurt us. We struggled being able to overcome that."
With the Lightning struggling to garner anything on offense, it allowed the Golden Bears to pull away before halftime. They started pushing the ball up the floor and attacking the basket with senior guards Terrell Lamar, Brandon Willis and Matt Johnson. Hammond ended the half on a 6-0 run and went up 22-15 at the break.
"We attacked the basket, made some free throws, made extra passes – we probably left 10-15 points on the board in the first half with those things alone," said Salapata. "But all things considered, without having a practice in a week – I'll take it."
The Golden Bears quickly turned their seven-point advantage into double-digits after going on a 9-0 run midway through the third quarter.
"I say we didn't let up," said Willis who finished with 12 points on the night. "We didn't change our effort at all. Coach told us at halftime, "Keep the intensity up, keep the effort up and speed them up a little bit, get them to turn the ball over and run away with this game." So I'm proud of my guys for sharing the ball, getting stops, getting rebounds and finishing at the rim."
Hammond owned a 10-point cushion over Long Reach entering the fourth quarter. Lightning sophomore Chad Brown netted six of his team-high 11 points in the final eight minutes, as he was able to find a few holes through the Golden Bears' tough zone defense. Long Reach got as close as eight early in the period, but ultimately couldnt facilitate enough made shots down the stretch.
"It hurt us definitely only scoring three points because then when they switched from a man-to-man defense to a three-two zone, we had a hard time finding the open gaps and working the basketball around to get some better shots or high-percentage shots," Moraz Jr. said. "We lived and died by the three-ball tonight and it just hurt us. I think we were around 4-for-20 from the three-ball, so that hurt."
Hammond finished out the game on a 13-4 run, which aided the 19-point victory.
"Coming off the break, there's been a lot of snow, guys haven't been really touching the basketball, I'm just proud of my team and coming out and getting a big win like this," Willis said. "This is a big statement win going into playoffs."
Lamar registered a game-high 20 points for the Golden Bears, while Jarvis Doles and Johnson followed with 14 and 10 points respectively.
With Wednesday's win, compiled with their thrilling last-second victory over Oakland Mills on Feb. 11, the Golden Bears are entering the last week of the regular season with a ton of confidence. But as Salapata alluded to, his team is focused on building onto the post-season and making a state title run.
"After the Oakland Mills game we just talked about moving forward from it and getting ready for the playoffs," he said. "That's been our goal all year. Nothing against the county, but we want to get down to the University of Maryland. That's been our whole focus and our goal and the kids are getting there."
As for the Lightning, Trevon Morgan added 10 points, followed by William Parham (8), Andre Brodnax (4), and Ryan Menusan (2).
After the contest, Moraz Jr. emphasized how crucial the last stretch of games are for them to play well and carry that momentum for a strong playoff push.
"I think it's very important because these team's that we're playing now, Hammond, Oakland Mills - we're going to have to beat that kind of caliber team to advance and move on in the playoffs," Moraz Jr. said. "I think it's a great test for us. I tried to explain to the guys that playoff atmosphere and that playoff intensity, every possession is very important and to take advantage of it."
Hammond 60, Long Reach 41 (Wednesday, Feb. 17)
Ha (14-2, 16-3): Lamar 20, Doles 14, Willis 12, Johnson 10.
LR (9-8, 10-10): Chad Brown 11, Morgan 10, W. Parham 8, Brodnax 4, Menusan 2.
Half: 22-15 Ha.
Centennial 70, Howard 65
Elijah White scored a season-high 21 points for the Eagles, who held off a Howard comeback in the final quarter to earn the victory. Tom Brown (14 points) and Andrew Hohmann (10) also scored in double figures.
The Lions were down by 20 heading into the fourth quarter and went down by 26 points, 55-29, before scoring 36 points down the stretch to almost come all the way back. Andrew Blanco finished with a team-high 16 points and all of them came in the fourth quarter.
C (10-6, 12-7): White 21, Brown 14, Hohmann 10, Merkey 7, Addisu 6, Williams 4, Smith 2, Sedlacko 2, Fowler 2, Fant 2.
Ho (9-8, 12-8): Blanco 16, Ajayi 11, Shuart 11, Scaife 7, Greene 6, Scates 5, Dawkins 4, Phillips 3, Hawkins 2.
Oakland Mills 72, River Hill 38
The Scorpions jumped ahead early and never looked back. Three guys scored in double figures, including a season-high 12 points from Jordan Campbell. Oakland Mills remains in first place, one game ahead of Hammond in the county standings.
OM (16-1, 18-2): Williams-Day 19, Kiely 16, Campbell 12, Aaron 9, T. Hopkins 8, J. Hopkins 6, Wheelock 2.
RH (4-12, 5-14): Martin 10, DeSimone 6, Ndiritu 6, Isaac 6, Daniels 5, Mitchell 3, Howland 2.
Mt. Hebron 57, Marriotts Ridge 45
The Vikings snapped a five-game losing skid with the win at home over the Mustangs, which saw Lance Madden (18 points) and Cleveland Horton (17) lead the way.
MH (6-9, 9-9): Madden 18, Horton 17, Schroeder 9, Linsenmeyer 9, Prox 2, Shriver 2.
MR (2-13, 3-15): Heard 17, Morath 7, L. Ingersoll 7, Wright 4, Geiger 4, Talentino 3, C. Ingersoll 3.
Wilde Lake 53, Atholton 44
The Wildecats continued their surge toward the postseason with their third win in the last four games. Baimba Stubblefield (20 points) and Kyle Ichrist (18) led the way offensively in the victory.
"It was a big game, the guys played well on their senior night and we were able to pick up a good win," Wilde Lake coach Deon Wingfield said.
WL (5-11, 5-14): Stubblefield 20, Ichrist 18, Cantwell 4, Samuels 3, David 2, Robinson 2, Greene 2, Barnes 2.
A (6-10, 9-10): Waterworth 11, Myers 8, Mason 8, Mendelsohn 6, James 3, Rodgers 3, Washington 3, Jackson 2.
Half: 27-22 WL.
Glenelg 57, Reservoir 43
G (9-7, 10-9): Winn 15, Mills 10, Wade 10, Currie 8, Walsh 4, Davis 4, Dry 2, Corle 2, Piwowarski 2.
Re (7-10, 8-12): G. Garcia 13, Winters 6, Payne 5, Phillips 5, Ricketts 3, Archampong 3, J. Garcia 2, Miller 2, Weith 2, Akinbinu 2.