Good teams discover new ways to win big games. Last night in the girls Class 2A semifinals at UMBC, the third-ranked, defending-champion Hammond Bears found out a little more about themselves.
The Bears ran into a physical Central team, struggled to make baskets during lengthy stretches and saw star point guard Kacy Williams foul out with three minutes left.
But Hammond took control in the second half, pulled away to a 55-43 victory and moved within a victory of its second state crown.
The Bears (21-4) will face second-seeded Middletown (25-0) today at 1 p.m. for the title.
"It's not like they're just glad to be here [in the state tournament] this time," said Hammond coach Joe Russo, referring to the Bears' first trip last season. "This time, they really want to win."
Hammond has won this season with quickness, balance and defensive pressure. The Bears forced 24 turnovers, out-rebounded Central 34-21 and had several players step up offensively.
Sonia Keiner scored 11 of her game-high 16 points in the first half. Kristen Moraz, after a two-point first half, finished with 10. Tiki Nicholson took over at point guard, ran the offense effectively and put the game away with five free throws in the last minute. Kellye Townsend neutralized Central's 6-foot-1 center, Latia Howard, with a seven-point, 11-rebound performance.
Against Central's bothersome 2-3 zone defense, Hammond often chose to drive. And the Bears followed up their misses aggressively inside. The result was 32 trips to the foul line, where Hammond converted 20.
Central (17-6) made six of 15 foul shots.
"We can win anything if we put our minds to it and play good defense," said Nicholson, who finished with nine points, five assists and five rebounds.
Central's two top players, Howard and point guard LaKeisha Cooper, did plenty of damage. Howard scored 12 points, grabbed a team-high eight rebounds and blocked a game-high five shots before fouling out with 2:17 left. Cooper scored 16 -- including several baskets after dazzling moves -- to go with six rebounds and five assists. The Bears held the rest of the Falcons in check.
"They [Central] relied on two girls to do everything. It was more of a team effort from us," Russo said. "We have a great team concept."
The Bears needed it last night, especially after starting slowly. Behind Howard and Cooper -- who scored six apiece in the opening period -- Central took a 14-12 lead into the second quarter. And when Loloita Love hit successive three-pointers, the Falcons took a 23-19 lead with 2:05 left in the half. Central led, 23-22 at intermission.
Hammond took command with an 18-point third quarter in which six players scored. Central committed six turnovers against the Bears' pressure defense. Hammond's 8-2 run over the last three minutes finished the period on top 42-35.
Cooper then drove the length of the court for a layup that pulled Central to within 46-39 at the three-minute mark. Williams fouled out on the play. Howard then banked in an 8-footer to close the gap to 46-41.
Moraz hit an 18-footer to make it 48-41. Cooper made two foul shots to cut the lead to 48-43 with 2:23 left.