Despite 19th-ranked Howard's 54-37 loss last night in its county opener to perennial powerhouse and sixth-ranked Mount Hebron (4-4, 1-0), Lions coach Craig O'Connell stood at Mount Hebron's midcourt smiling at the end of the game.
Mount Hebron's swarming man-to-man defense had overwhelmed Howard (4-5, 0-1) in the first half, creating 10 first-quarter turnovers, as the Lions fell behind at halftime, 29-12.
But after the Vikings' lead climbed to 48-23 on senior shooting guard Emily Yanero's three-pointer early in the fourth quarter, Howard's young players produced a 14-6 run to close the game and bring a long-awaited grin to O'Connell's face.
"I'm extremely proud of the way we played, especially in the second half," said O'Connell. "Last year we came in here and lost, 60-29. This year we came in with a much younger and more inexperienced team and we really stayed with them in the second half. I think we can see light at the end of our tunnel."
Unfortunately for O'Connell's players, Mount Hebron had opened a comfortable 25-point lead behind the trio of Yanero (11 points), senior forward Kristin Lloyd (10 points) and sophomore point guard Alisha Mosely. Mount Hebron's 6-foot-2 senior center Rachel Cimmier also added nine points to go along with 10 rebounds.
"I thought Kristin Lloyd played a great game and did some very good things that just don't show up in the statistics," said Mount Hebron coach Dave Greenberg, who added that Lloyd, earlier this week, orally committed to attend Bucknell University next fall on a Division I basketball scholarship.
However, Mount Hebron's youth gave the Vikings a quick 13-6 advantage after the first quarter as Mosely tallied eight points, including two three-pointers.
Mosely's backcourt partner, Yanero, took over the scoring chores in the second quarter as the senior Viking scored eight points during a 12-4 run that closed out the first half.
"Howard lost a few of its major players from a year ago, but they're still very athletic," Yanero said.
While Mount Hebron held Lions junior forward Mona Jackson to just eight points, well below her county-leading 16.1 points-per-game average, Howard 5-foot-11 junior center Megan Boehm picked up the slack with 11 points.
"I thought in the first half we played well, but in the second half we reverted to not doing the little things we need to do, such as executing fundamentals," said Greenberg, whose Vikings lost two of three games in the Benjamin Hoops Tournament at Lake Braddock (Va.) High School during the holiday break.
O'Connell said Howard's early turnovers were a tribute to Mount Hebron's attacking defense that the Lion players knew was coming, but still could not handle.
"We really thought we were ready for it, but it turns out it took us a half to get it together," O'Connell said.
Greenberg, who admits there are far better state teams than his Vikings this season, still feels his players have yet to match up against a superior team.
"We've lost four games to teams we could play with," Greenberg said. "This game for us was a step in the right direction."
Mount Hebron's win proved to Greenberg that his players have gotten an early-season message from the team's stumble during the tough pre-county schedule.
"In the holiday tournament, we learned we needed to work
harder because all of us thought we could have won those games," Yanero said.