Things have rarely come easy for Howard this season.
Last night was one of those rare occasions.
The seventh-ranked Lions (19-6) raced to a 19-2 lead and cruised to a 66-27 victory over host Northwestern (13-5) in the Class 3A, Region III final.
Sharon Ford scored 16 and Mona Jackson added 14 to lead Howard, which will make its first appearance in the state semifinals on Thursday at UMBC.
The Lions, who have played down to the level of their competition at times this season, were focused from the outset.
"We wanted to start fast and play our game," said Howard senior point guard Camille Powell, who scored 10 points.
After Howard took a 21-4 lead early in the first quarter, the outcome did not appear to be in question.
Northwestern had difficulty handling the Lions' press, and even when the Wildcats got an open shot they often missed.
But Howard coach Craig O'Connell wasn't taking anything for granted.
In the last nine days, O'Connell had watched his team build -- then lose -- double-digit leads in three games. The Lions managed to win two of the three.
"Even when we were up by 22, that's all that was going through my mind," said O'Connell, in his fifth season at Howard. "I told them that if we relax and Northwestern starts shooting threes, they'll get back into this game and I'll die."
Three of Howard's starters -- Powell, Jackson and Emily Moore got into foul trouble in the second quarter, which allowed the Wildcats to trade baskets with the Lions during the latter part of the period.
Howard was able to maintain a 29-11 lead at halftime, however. O'Connell brought all of his starters back in at the beginning of the third quarter, and the Lions outscored Northwestern, 19-5, in the period and never looked back.
The victory was especially sweet for Ford and Powell, who were sophomores when Oakland Mills edged Howard by two points in the region final two years ago.
"I reminded Sharon about that game and how sad we felt, crying on the bus ride home," Powell said.
Despite the loss, Northwestern coach Lillian Brown was pleased with her team's season.
"We only have on senior," said Brown, whose team defeated Carver, 67-31, on Friday after losing to the Bears twice during the regular season. "I think we needed more maturity to play at this level. But I think we did a terrific job."