As Jack Burke sees it, his Hammond High School boys basketball team has been lurking largely unnoticed for the past month, but all the while has been sneaking up on opponents.

After Thursday's 87-71 victory over visiting Howard, Burke can rest assured the Golden Bears areattracting attention. When a team erases an eight-point, third-quarter deficit with the tenacious defense Hammond displayed, and scores 56 second-half points on top of that to turn a tight game into a rout,people tend to notice.

One group surely aware of Hammond's progress -- the Bears have won seven straight against the county and seven of their last eight overall to improve their record to 11-6 -- is Oakland Mills. The Scorpions' 70-65 loss to Wilde Lake Thursday dropped Oakland Mills into a first-place tie with Hammond. Each has a 9-3 county record.

That sets the stage for Tuesday's 7:30 p.m. Bears-Scorpions clash at Oakland Mills, a contest that should decide the county championship.

"We sort of disappeared because we lost some early games," said Burke, whose Bears have come a long way since dropping three of their first five county games, including 86-77 to Oakland Mills and 80-74 to Howard in overtime. "We sort of fell out of the papers and into the dust.

"It took us a long time, but we're finally getting it together," Burke added. "We could fall flat out on our faces at Oakland Mills. But in all honesty, I wouldn't want to play us right now."

Hammond took three quarters to get it together Thursday. Howard (6-6, 11-8) outhustled and outshot the Bears in the first half, and broke down Hammond's box-and-one defense on sharpshooter Alec Sutton. The Lions led comfortably for most of the half, and at intermission Sutton's 17 points had sparked Howard to a 38-31 advantage.

Howard then answered a 10-2 Hammond run at the start of the second half with a 9-0 spurt to regain the lead, 49-41, with 3:28 to go in the third period.

Hammond then ignited one more time, only this time it lasted for the game's final 11 minutes. The Bears overwhelmed the Lions with a 46-point deluge over that span.

Offensively, Hammond attacked the Lions withequal success inside and out. Four players scored in double figures,as the Bears shook off a cold first half to hit 18 of 31 shots (58 percent) after the intermission.

Kyle Jefferson continued his questfor Player of the Year honors with another workmanlike performance. After missing his first four shots, the 6-3 senior forward came on tolead the Bears with 18 points. He added team-highs of 10 rebounds, five assists and five steals.

"If he's not the Player of the Year, then I haven't done my job for 13 years," Burke said. "I don't know if we can ride him all the way (to a state title), but he's my pony."

Guards James Grant and Adam Walker each scored 16 points, with Walker's all coming in the second half. Grant hit four three-point baskets, and his last trey started a 10-0 run in the fourth period that turned a three-point Hammond lead into a 74-61 bulge with 2:26 left.

Carl Williams added 11 points and seven rebounds. Andrew Tettah had seven points and seven rebounds, and his dunk with 1:43 left put the finishing touch on the evening.

As impressive as Hammond's offensewas, the victory was sparked by its defense -- especially a switch Burke made at halftime by putting Williams on Sutton, Howard's leadingscorer (19.8). The Bears stayed in a box-and-one in the second half,with Williams chasing Sutton. Sutton scored just two field goals andnine second-half points. He finished with a game-high 26, but the Lions' failure to find scoring elsewhere spelled their demise.

"Al did his job. When it came time for someone else to step up, we didn't do it," said Howard coach Rich Jenkins, whose Lions came into Hammondwith a four-game winning streak, including a shocking 85-51 blowout of Wilde Lake two nights earlier.

Hammond also dominated the boards, outrebounding the Lions 38-21. And in the second half, when Jenkins was forced to play catch-up with a smaller, quicker lineup, the Bears held a 17-7 rebounding edge.

Dax Matthews scored 12 for Howard.Terry Troy added eight. Tim Day and James Green each had six points and six rebounds.

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