Anne Arundel Community College trainer Jim Fontaine delicately removed the tape from Kelly Horsley's right hand, exposing the stitches that ran below her thumb.

Katie Laidley chatted with a friend while balancing herself on a twisted right ankle and a bruised left shin.

Amy Hercha sat on the bench and tried to ease the stiffness in her back and neck.

And these were members of the winning team.

"Every week it seems like it's something different," said Anne Arundel women's basketball coach Tom Smith, after his Pioneers had taken their home opener Saturday, 69-54, over Essex Community College.

"They always tell you they're all right. They never want to come out.

Then, after the game, they admit the truth," he said.

"We're tough," Laidley said.

They have to be.

With an eight-player roster, Smith cannot afford to lose anyone for an extended period of time. And the risks aren't confined to the court.

Horsley, a 5-foot-9 forward and Archbishop Spalding graduate, cut her hand Friday night while emptying a dishwasher and needed six stiches to close the gash. Yet she started the next day and contributed nine points and eight rebounds.

All the points came in the second half and helped prevent a fatigued Anne Arundel team from squandering a huge lead.

"I can't believe I even played," Horsley said, smiling. "Before the game I was dribbling around and I was afraid to catch the ball. But after I got into the game I tried not to think about it. It worked real well."

Laidley (Severna Park) and Nikki Beall (Meade) each scored 16 points.

Laidley, who also pulled down eight rebounds, had to leave the game briefly in the second half after being kneed in the shin by an Essex player. She twisted her ankle the previous weekend, the same time Hercha (Glen Burnie) had taken a hard fall.

Hercha had six points and four rebounds Saturday in a reserve role.

"I thought Amy gave us a big lift off the bench," Smith said.

Smith also got a lift from his team's full-court press, which forced Essex into 29 turnovers and helped the Pioneers build a 46-28 lead early in the second half.

But the pace took its toll. With Anne Arundel tiring, the Knights went on an 18-2 run to climb back into the game.

"Our shots weren't falling and we started getting tired. They were running us pretty hard," said 5-foot-6 guard Sarah Krucoff (Arundel), who scored 11 points "I stayed in the press too long. I was hoping to get another six or eight points out of the press, then go into another defense. But I burned them a little too long," Smith said.

"That's when we need a couple other people to rotate, so we can stay in there a little longer and not wear down. They were so winded, their legs went on them. You could see they weren't moving on defense."

And they weren't scoring on offense.

"The shots weren't falling. lt was kind of nerve-wracking," Laidley said.

The Knights' DeAnna Swiger missed a jumper that would have tied the score with under seven minutes remaining. Beall sank two free throws -- the Pioneers were 12-of-18 from the line -- and after Jen Rickard (Southern) rebounded a miss, Horsley scored on a follow.

Horsley drove the baseline for two more, and after an Essex turnover, Rhonda DeShaw (Andover) spun and hit in the lane to put Anne Arundel ahead, 56-46, with 4:38 left.

Beall later added a pair of three-pointers, as the Pioneers survived a scare to even their record at 2-2.

"I was getting nervous, but I thought we'd eventually pull back together," said DeShaw, who netted seven points off the bench.

Rickard and Stacey Dent (South River) each had two points, as every Pioneer contributed in the scoring and rebounding departments.

"We've got a real good team element, as far as us not looking for just one person to carry us," Smith said. "We're trying to get everybody involved."

Krucoff said, "I'm delighted. For being all freshmen, we're doing a great job."

Essex (1-4) was led by Melissa Balog with 15 points. Karen Popera and Jen Ellsworth had 14 and 13 points, respectively.

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