After dropping out of the National Junior College Athletic Association Division III Top 10 last week, players on the Howard Community College basketball team vowed to return.
With an 81-74 win over third-ranked Montgomery College-Rockville last night, the Express may have done just that.
Guard Darrin Johnson scored a game-high 23 points to lead four Howard scorers in double figures and helped key a 16-2 run early in the second half that gave the hosts a lead they never relinquished.
For Howard (8-3), which was ranked No. 1 in preseason polls before losing three games, the win provided a much-needed ego boost.
"The kids were a little upset [about dropping out of the poll]," said Howard coach Wheeler Brown. "They thought it was unfair. After they saw it, they set about the task of trying to get back in."
L From the opening tip last night, the Express played like it.
After a back-and-forth first half that ended with Montgomery (9-1) leading, 41-39, Howard came out of the break in a tenacious man-to-man defense that was the difference in the game.
After trading baskets to start the half, Howard reeled off 11 unanswered points, and 16 of the next 18, to take a 57-47 lead with 11:57 left.
The Express was 8-for-13 from the field during the stretch, while their full-court pressure held the Fighting Knights to 2-for-16.
Montgomery-Rockville shot just 35 percent and was held to well under its 103-point average.
"I told them at halftime that we were playing soft defensively," said Howard coach Wheeler Brown. "We wanted to play them the length of the floor. To keep them 30 points below their average, I've got to be a little happy about that."
Said Knights coach Steve Hobson: "We're a very average team, and when we shoot well we win. Today we just didn't shoot well."
For Howard, however, the story was just the opposite.
After making nine of their first 12 attempts from the floor to take an 18-12 lead midway through the first half, the streaky-shooting Express leveled off significantly and shot 50 percent for the game.
After Richard Avent's fadeaway jumper, the Express led 28-21 ++ with 8:40 left in the half.
But the Knights rallied, outscoring Howard, 9-0, in the next 2:21 -- the last two points coming on a steal and layup by Demond Gibson to give Montgomery a 30-28 lead.
The score remained close until just over a minute into the second half.
That's when the Express took off.
Randolph Edison started the rally with a driving layup with 18:45 to play, and center Joe Herring followed seconds later with a layup that tied the game at 45.
Howard's Kamar Street than hit a three-pointer to put his team on top, 48-45, and came back 2:57 later with another three-pointer to extend the lead to 55-47.
Street scored 13 of his 17 points in the second half.
"We came out in the second half with a lot more intensity in the second half," said Street. "We knew we had to play better defense, and we came out and did it."
Other scorers in double figures for Howard were Ray Fountain (16) and Edison (11). Phillip Hobson led four players in double figures for the Knights with 18 points.
The win should ensure Howard a return trip to the poll, which next comes out the second week in January. For some players, though, the win was anything but a surprise.
"It's a big win, but I thought we were better than them from the start," said Johnson. "We deserve to be in the poll."