The first thing Hereford coach Steve Power did in the locker room after his Hereford Bulls won the Class 2A, Region III championship last night was to lead the team in a prayer. Hereford (14-11), which won its sixth straight game, is heading to the state playoffs for the first time since 1968 and for only the second time in school history.
And the Bulls needed a little divine intervention to win last night's 69-68 overtime thriller at Hammond.
Hammond (15-9) missed its final nine shots -- seven during one possession -- in the last 54 seconds of overtime, including a final six-footer by Kris Jefferson (15 points), its leading scorer this season. Jefferson's miss went out of bounds off of Hammond with two seconds left.
Hereford then missed a one-and-one with one second left and Hammond was unable to get off a final shot.
Hereford's 6-foot-7, 215-pound Jamey Mathews scored 31 points and had 15 rebounds and became Hereford's all-time leading scorer with 1,123 career points.
Most of his 17 first-half points were scored from the low post, as Hammond's zone failed to sag back effectively on him.
Mathews struck an important blow for Hereford 36 seconds into the game when his elbow broke Hammond point guard Kelvin Stevens' nose. Stevens returned later and played much of the game despite paper stuffed up his nose to stop the bleeding.
Hereford, which had a decided height and weight advantage over Hammond, also got 12 points and 12 rebounds from 6-foot-5, 220-pound Dewayne Fowble.
The lead changed six times in the first quarter before Hereford pulled away 32-25 at halftime.
Hammond, which had won 10 of its last 11 games and was 10-1 at home, then used its superior quickness and full-court press to climb back into the game in the third quarter. Hereford made 11 turnovers in that quarter, including six straight early in the quarter.
Hammond sophomore Mike Matthews (24 points) scored eight points for the Bears in the first period.
Hammond actually regained the lead, 42-41, on freshman Irving Conwell's three-pointer with 50 seconds left in the third quarter. And the lead then changed five straight times before Hereford pulled ahead 49-46 on Mathews' 20-foot jumper.
Hammond's Matthews, who scored 12 points in the fourth quarter and two points in overtime, continued to hit 12-foot jumpers and free throws to keep his team close.
His jumper with two seconds left in regulation tied it 66-66 and sent the game into overtime.
Jefferson had tied the game 64-64 with 34 seconds left, but Fowble's put-back gave Hereford a 66-64 lead with 15 seconds left.
Mathews scored first for Hereford in overtime but Hammond's Matthews tied it, 68-68.
After Hammond missed seven shots on its next possession, Hereford's Mathews sank one free throw with 13 seconds left.
Hammond got off two final shots but missed both.
Hereford, which shot 43 percent from the floor for the season, shot 25-for-44 (57 percent) last night. Hammond, which shot 38 percent for the season, shot 25-for-66.
Mathews, who averaged 17.5 points and 10 rebounds this season, was a freshman on the bench when Hammond beat Hereford in the regional finals at Hammond in 1990, so yesterday's win was even more meaningful.
"We knew it would be a hard game because of their quickness, but we beat Oakland Mills and Overlea, two other quick teams in regionals, and they helped get us ready for this one," Mathews said. Our guards really stepped up for us."