With a little more than five minutes left in yesterday's 2A state championship game at UMBC, defending state titlist Hammond couldn't have asked for a better scenario.
The Bears had just completed a 7-0 run to take a 43-37 lead over Middletown, Hammond's biggest lead of the game. And the Bears had done it while several starters had watched from the bench in foul trouble. All signs pointed to another championship.
Middletown had other ideas. First, the Knights charged back with eight unanswered points to take a 45-43 lead with 1:24 left. Then, after Hammond tied the score at 45 to force overtime, Middletown scored the first four points of the extra period, then shook off a bad day at the foul line by making its last four free throws to take the title with a 53-48 victory.
Middletown (Frederick County) completed a 26-0 season and won its third state crown. The Knights won their second state title under coach Mark Miller, who guided them to the title in 1989.
"We weren't supposed to come down here and beat them. They're the defending state champs, they're quicker than us and they played a real tough schedule," Miller said. "We had the attitude that if we stayed close until the end, we would win the game. And we had some girls step up at crunch time."
The Knights showed poise that had not been required often this year. Before yesterday, their closest margin of victory was 15 points.
Guard Kara Reed stepped up the most for Middletown. She scored a game-high 20 points on 7-for-11 shooting . She sparked the Knights' comeback in regulation, started a 4-0 run in overtime by driving through two Hammond defenders for a tough layup, and clinched the victory by converting both ends of a one-and-one with 9.6 seconds left.
Then there was Rachel Levine, who, after a two-point first half, came alive with 11 points after halftime to finish with 15 on 6-for-8 shooting. Levine added nine rebounds.
Reed picked the ideal time to regain her touch at the foul line. She made only five of 12 foul shots. The Knights converted just 13 of 29 attempts.
"We've been up and down all year [with free-throw shooting]," Miller said. "I kept wondering if that would be a factor. It was just a gutty performance by our kids."
It was a maddening day for the Bears. First, they found on Tuesday that starting guard Tiki Nicholson had to undergo minor surgery and would miss the championship game. Nicholson's trip to the hospital came three days after the title game would have been played, had it not been for last weekend's blizzard.
The Bears missed Nicholson, who had been their defensive specialist and a key part of a balanced attack. She would have guarded Reed yesterday.
"Not having Tiki hurt us a lot, especially on defense, but that's not the reason why we lost," said Hammond coach Joe Russo, whose Bears ended at 21-5. "I thought we played well enough to win, even though we had a lot of turnovers  and missed too many shots. And we had the last shot [in regulation]. It just seemed like, in overtime, [Middletown] wanted it more."
Nicholson's absence doesn't explain Hammond's shooting woes. The Bears converted only 19 of 63 shots (30 percent), wasting a tenacious effort on the offensive boards. Middletown, meanwhile, negated its foul-shooting problems by hitting 20 of 40 field-goal attempts (50 percent).
Still, without Nicholson, the Bears were out of sync at times, particularly in the early stages of each half. They started slowly, as freshman forward Kellye Townsend -- thrust into a starting role -- picked up three first-quarter fouls. Middletown took an 11-8 lead into the second quarter, then led 15-10 before Hammond took its first lead, 20-18, with three minutes left in the ++ half. The Bears led 25-21 at the half.
In the third quarter, Hammond committed six turnovers and couldn't buy a basket, while the Knights staged a 12-5 run to take a 31-30 lead with 2:10 left in the period.