Howard High School's girls basketball team was already limping when it started Monday night's game at South Carroll. By the end of their excruciating, turnover-filled, 37-36 overtime loss to the Cavaliers, the Lions were stunned as well.
South Carroll trailed for nearly the entire evening before taking advantage of Howard's generous offense, which committed a whopping 36 turnovers and allowed a 23-10 halftime lead to evaporate.
Dawn Carter completed the Cavaliers' comeback with a short bank shot to tie the score at 34-34 with three seconds left in regulation. With two seconds remaining in overtime, Kelly Clutter sank a free throw for the victory.
"I've never felt so devastated," Howard coach Craig O'Connell said.
He saw plenty to bring him down. The Lions, who suffered their first loss of the year in three games, never were in sync offensively. They seemed confused all night against South Carroll's 2-1-2 zone defense, turning the ball over 15 times in the first half and 21 times after halftime.
The Lions also wasted a strong defensive effort, as their man-to-man defense forced many of South Carroll's 28 turnovers.
And yet, thanks mainly to senior guard Kristi Greer and junior forward Krista Fulton, the Lions were able to turn a 10-8 first-quarter edge into a 23-10 lead at intermission.
Howard's carelessness resurfaced in the second half, while South Carroll began finding holes in the Lions' defense. A 13-2 third-quarter run brought the Cavaliers to within 25-23 with 2 minutes, 55 seconds left.
Howard opened the lead to 29-24 at the end of the period, but South Carroll closed to within a point in the last 2:28 on jump shots by Clutter and Carter. Finally, Carter caught a pass in the paint, freed herself with a nice spin and hit a five-foot bank shot to force overtime.
O'Connell expressed concern last week over Howard's inexperienced bench and lack of depth. His worries proved prophetic Monday. Howard took the floor without starting sophomore guard Camille Powell, who sprained her back 11 days ago in a game against Thomas Johnson and hasn't practiced since.
The Lions got their first 19 points and two-thirds of their production from their top two players -- Greer (15 points) and Fulton (10). Their bench accounted for only seven points.
Greer and Fulton combined for just six points after halftime. Greer's shooting hand simply went cold in a four-point second half. Fulton had a different excuse. She sat out the fourth period with a stiff neck she suffered after a collision under the basket in the closing seconds of the third quarter.
Brown won't return to the Howard lineup until the first week of January.
"Doesn't this sound familiar? I can't believe this," said O'Connell, who last year saw Fulton go down in December with a serious neck injury that forced her to miss the rest of the season.
Fulton spent the fourth quarter Monday night with an ice pack on the back of her neck.
Fulton returned in overtime to grab three rebounds and account for Howard's only basket, a 12-foot jumper that gave the Lions a 36-35 lead with 31 seconds left. But her courageous effort was wasted in the final 10 seconds.
Greer started the sequence by fouling out with nine seconds left. Ann Keefer made the front end of a one-and-one to make it 36-36. She missed the next shot, but in the scramble for the ball, Howard's Emily Petrlik was whistled for a foul on Clutter, who stepped up to the line with two seconds left. Ballgame.
It was South Carroll's first victory in five games. The Cavaliers had lost all four of their previous games to Howard County opponents.
Fulton, who completed her second All-County soccer season as Howard's goalie, practiced with the basketball team without incident for more than a week. However, since the Lions' first scrimmage three weeks ago, she has experienced periodic neck stiffness.
"I really can't play for 24 hours after a game, and I can't get up for (Saturday) morning practices after one," Fulton said. "The team needs me.
We don't have much depth."
The Lions would have been nowhere Monday night without Fulton and Greer.
While the teams traded turnovers, Greer made her first four shots and Fulton sank two of her first three and added two free throws to give Howard a 14-8 lead with 6:44 left in the half.
After South Carroll cut the score to 14-10, the Lions produced their best stretch of the night -- a 9-0 run.
Greer and Fulton started the binge by scoring on layups aided by their own steals. Greer added a free throw to make it 19-10, and with 2:27 to go, freshman guard Shannon Bagrosky stole a pass and hit a layup to become the first Lion other than Greer and Fulton to score. Bagrosky added an 8-foot jumper -- after a great bounce pass from Greer in traffic -- to make it 23-10 at the half.
But just when it appeared Howard had overcome its sloppiness and seized control, the Lions resumed their careless ways.
Six early third-quarter turnovers helped South Carroll on its 13-2 run.
Keefer completed the spurt with a three-point play and a layup to cut Howard's lead to 25-23 with 2:55 left in the period. From there, the Lions couldn't shake South Carroll.
After halftime, Howard managed just six baskets.
Valerie Baker led South Carroll with 10 points. Keefer had nine. Clutter added eight.