The winter days were dragging, the snow kept coming and high school boys basketball in Carroll County wasn't exactly booming.
But suddenly coach Dave Byers and the Westminster Owls stepped forward to make the final days of the winter season bearable.
Byers and the Owls began to put on a clinic every time they took the court. The passes were crisp and precise, the offense was fluid, the rebounding was effective, the intensity was at a high level and 6-foot-8 junior center Russell DeMont was no longer a product.
DeMont began to do all the things Byers had been drilling him on in practice. It was as if everything clicked at once.
DeMont, foiled by swarming defenses in the first part of the season, started to step out and take the 15- to 18-foot jumpers without hesitation. He hit a lot of those shots to burn opponents who believed it was only a matter of time before DeMont came back to earth.
When DeMont knocked down three 18-footers against once-beaten Thomas Johnson in a 49-47 overtime upset victory last week, DeMont had arrived as an inside and outside threat.
DeMont's blossoming in the middle for the Owls made life easier for the other four starters. Todd Dorsey had more openings to work his offensive magic, Brad Gibson was left open more often for his three-point shots, Jamie Grocki went on a scoring tear that resulted in a 13.4 average during the last seven games and point guard Matt Brightful discovered more ways to get the ball inside to DeMont.
The team went on a seven-game winning streak to finish the regular season 14-8 and gain the fifth seed in the tough state Class 4A, Region I playoffs.
Westminster had made the top six in Region I, joining the likes of traditional Montgomery County powers, top seed Montgomery Blair (18-2) and second seed Springbrook (16-3). That's fast company for a team that had been 7-8.
Four days after shocking then-19-1 Thomas Johnson, Westminster beat a strong Quince Orchard team, 57-55, at Westminster to clinch the Region I playoff berth.
Two upsets in four days sent the Owls rolling into the playoffs.
Quince Orchard had a 13-7 regular-season record to earn the fourth seed in Class 4A, Region I and gain a rematch with the Owls on Monday night in the opening round of the playoffs.
The Cougars from Montgomery County made the most of that second opportunity, turning back the Owls, 60-40, at Quince Orchard, and ending the season for Westminster.
The Owls were down only 27-20 with 12 seconds left in the first half, but Quince Orchard hit two three-point shots for a 33-20 halftime lead.
Westminster rallied in the opening minutes of the third quarter behind Dorsey's five straight points to reduce its deficit to 33-25. But the Cougars answered with six straight points for a 14-point lead and never were threatened after that.
Moments after the loss, Byers said he hoped that the setback wouldn't diminish the late-season surge by his team.
Westminster still owns one of only two victories this season over Thomas Johnson. The Owls also took Montgomery Blair to overtime before losing an early January game.
Westminster was 9-3 in the Central Maryland Conference and 6-0 in Carroll County.
Those are outstanding accomplishments.
Byers and his players gained some respect for county basketball at the highest level (4A) in the state.
Johnson to swim for North Carolina
Westminster High senior Candie Johnson, who swims for the Retriever Aquatic Club and is considered one of the top young swimmers in the country, has chosen to attend the University of North Carolina.
Johnson said she also considered the Virginia, Tennessee, Texas, Southern Methodist, Arizona State, Arizona, North Carolina State, Penn State and UMBC.
Johnson's specialties are the 50- and 100-meter freestyles and the 100-meter butterfly.
Smith going to Western Maryland
Shelley Smith, the second-leading scorer on the Francis Scott Key girls basketball team this season, will attend Western Maryland College next fall to continue her basketball career.
Smith, a guard, averaged 11.5 points.
Murphey named to All-Star Game
Francis Scott Key's Erin Murphey has been chosen to play in the Maryland Women's Basketball Coaches Association Senior All-Star Game at Cole Field House on March 21 at 4 p.m.
Murphey averaged 16.1 points, leading Key in scoring. She also became Key's career girls scoring leader with 946 points, surpassing Kim Duppins, who had 942 points.
Murphey will be the only representative from Carroll County.