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Midseason victories don't get much more important than this.

Hammond's girls basketball team came to Centennial Friday night dragging a two-game losing streak behind it. The Golden Bears had seen their undefeated season shattered in an 18-point blowout at Mount Hebron nine days ago. Then, they complicated matters with a 44-43 defeat at home against Glenelg Wednesday.

For 2 1/2 quarters, Centennial appeared ready to deal Hammond a third straight defeat.

But after the Eagles had scored the first eight points of the second half to take a 28-19 lead, Hammond suddenly awakened. And during the next 12 minutes, the Bears showed the form that took them to a 10-0 start by outscoring Centennial, 30-13, and pulling away to a 49-41 victory.

Hammond (4-2, 11-1) coach Joe Russo, whose team feasted on a number of weak opponents en route to its fast start, breathed a sigh of relief, then waxed philosophical about alesson he hopes he and the Bears have learned.

"Our kids suffer from winner-itis," Russo said. "You win a bunch of games and your self-image grows. You think your image is going to carry you when you play. (The weak schedule) finally caught up to us. Our last three games have brought us down to earth."

Hammond's comeback came at a much-needed time. With a Wednesday date at Howard that promises to be tough, the Bears couldn't afford to drop their third straight, especiallyagainst a Centennial team that had beaten only one county opponent.

"If we don't win tonight, I'm afraid we fold," he said. "Maybe I've put a little too much pressure on them. We're real good, but we're still a young team."

Indeed, the Bears list no seniors on their roster. They started four underclassmen Friday. And it was youth, specifically the talented freshman tandem of guard Tiki Nicholson and forward Tameka Harrison, that pulled them through.

Nicholson and Harrison, who started for the first time together, didn't make much of a difference at first. Centennial (1-5, 5-8) used a height advantage inside -- mainly 6-foot Shannon Saltzman (12 points, game-high 14 rebounds) -- and a variety of zone defenses to frustrate Hammond's offense.Meanwhile, Centennial guard Becky Joeckel (game-high 16 points, three assists) helped the Eagles overcome the Bears full-court pressure early.

The result was a tight first half that ended with Centennialleading, 20-19. Then, Joeckel scored six points to lead an 8-0 run that gave the Eagles a 28-19 lead with 5:37 left in the third. That's when Hammond's freshmen moved to the head of the class.

Nicholson,held scoreless in the first half, converted a three-point play to stir the Bears. Then she buried a 19-footer. And after sophomore forward Sonia Keiner (seven points, seven rebounds) hit two free throws, Nicholson scored the next six points to pull Hammond even at 32-32 at the quarter's end.

Nicholson, who wound up with 13 points, scored 11 of Hammond's 13 third-quarter points. She hit an 18-foot baseline jumper to start the final period, giving the

Bears a 34-32 lead they would not relinquish.

"That's the best quarter she's ever played. She was the show," Russo said.

And Harrison (10 points, six rebounds) was the encore. With the Bears leading 40-36 midway through theperiod, she converted a three-point play, then grabbed her own offensive rebound and hit an eight-footer in traffic to give Hammond a 43-36 advantage with 3:32 left. She made three of four free throws in the final two minutes to secure the victory.

"We really needed to win tonight. We were afraid if we kept losing, we would forget how to win," Harrison said. "As freshmen, we don't expect a whole lot. But wewant to go out there and do something to get noticed."

Friday night, both missions were accomplished.

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