The Arundel girls basketball team took a giant step toward respectability yesterday afternoon, knocking off county 2A power Northeast, 55-51, in the final of the Arundel Holiday Invitational tournament.

In Wednesday's semifinal round against Bowie, Wildcat center Tiffany Clayton turned in a mediocre four-point, six-rebound performance.

Yesterday, the 6-foot senior rose to the occasion, leading her team in scoring and rebounding with 14 points (11 during the first half) and 17 rebounds.

"I guess we were a little tired after coming back from Christmas," said Clayton. "It seemed like we were more ready to play today. We really wanted to win this one. It was our first time being in a championship game. I think we really needed it."

After tying the score at 12 at the end of the first quarter, Clayton helped the Wildcats sustain a 10-point run, converting two foul shots and a follow-up. Donna Parker (10 points, 12 rebounds) and junior forward Julie James each added two points during the run that put the hosts up 20-12 with six minutes left in the half.

"Tiffany really did come through for us. It's about time she got things going," said victorious head coach Lee Rogers.

Arundel upped its lead to 10 points at the end of the half, thanks to a pull-up jumper by Parker and a layup by reserve forward Sarah Melby (three points, three rebounds).

"We were too tentative with the ball during the first half," said Northeast head coach Calvin Vain. "We acted like we were scared to death of them. The key for Arundel was the fact that they capitalized on our offensive mistakes. You have to give it to them, they've really improved."

The Wildcats (5-3) took their biggest lead of the game at the 6:25 mark of the third quarter on consecutive buckets by Parker and Clayton.

Northeast's frontcourt duo of Stephanie Lazor (21 points, 12 rebounds, three blocked shots) and Debbie Dadds (12 points, 19 rebounds) tallied six out of seven straight points to close the gap at 36-30 with 3:20 left in the quarter. Dadds then closed the quarter by hitting one out of two free throws to pull the Eagles to within five at the end of the third, 41-36.

"We did a nice job of coming back on them," Vain said. "But with only two healthy subs on the bench, a comeback like that takes a lot out of you, especially when you're trying to play pressure defense."

Northeast (5-3) kept within striking distance throughout the final period, constantly keeping within five to seven points. With 1:35 left in the game, Arundel's Clayton picked up her fifth foul, and along with it, a technical foul.

Lazor proceeded to miss the front end of the one-and-one opportunity, but made both technicals, closing the gap to 53-49. After a one-and-one miss by Parker, Dadds cut the lead to 53-51 with a follow of a missed shot with a minute left.

A driving layup by Parker with 39 seconds remaining and a steal by junior Michelle Harrison iced the game for Arundel.

"This game may be a sign of better things to come," said Rogers. "The more we're involved in games like this, the better we'll be. We're starting to show a lot of maturity and composure.

"This game felt so good to win, mainly because we weren't supposed to.

It really feels good to beat a team with a lot of tradition, like Northeast. We're trying to get the same respect that teams like Northeast, Severna Park and Old Mill have."

The smaller, quicker Wildcats out-rebounded their taller opponents by a 56-40 margin, with Mary Pat Fannon (six), Alina Smith (seven) and Latoy Long (six) helping Clayton and Parker.

"I didn't think they were capable of hitting the boards the way they did," said Vain. "They had a lot better balance, scoring-wise and rebounding-wise. Other than Lazor and Dadds, Tammy Kuebel (10 points) was the only other player who produced offensively for us. We need to get more people involved."

In the earlier consolation game, Bowie of Prince George's County downed Edgewood of Harford County, 60-21, to take third place in the tournament.

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