Howard entered the playoffs last season with a sub-.500 record and got on a roll that didn't end until the Lions had won the Class 3A state championship.
In the opening round of the Class 3A East Region playoffs yesterday, the 13th-ranked Lions failed to come close to the level of play that typified last year's postseason run, but they still managed to hold off host and fourth-seeded City, 40-28.
Chanelle Carter scored 14 points and Mona Jackson added 13 for fifth-seeded Howard (15-8), which will meet top-seeded and No. 19 Poly in tomorrow's semifinals.
How bad was it for the Lions yesterday?
They shot just 24 percent (15-for-62) from the field, including a 2-for-21 (10 percent) performance in a seven-point second quarter.
"If you win, you're happy," Howard coach Craig O'Connell said. "If you lose, you go home and kick yourself because you shot so bad. Every team will have a game where they shoot like this. Now we can move on."
Although his team ended the regular season on a five-game winning streak, O'Connell said he wasn't surprised by his team's flat performance.
"I told the team that we would have to win our last five games to get into the playoffs," he said. "And they did it. I think they felt like they accomplished the hardest thing. It was very emotional for them. I almost knew this would happen."
Jackson offered a simpler explanation.
"Our shots were just off," she said. "It's ironic that we were all off on the same day. I figured we'd eventually have a spurt, but we were so flat we couldn't get it going."
Despite the Lions' offensive difficulties, their trademark pressure defense was too much for the Knights (10-8), who were limited to just nine field goals.
"To the girls' credit, they didn't stop playing defense," O'Connell said. "The intensity was definitely there defensively."
Howard built a 13-6 lead after the first quarter before the disastrous second period.
But as bad as the second quarter was for the Lions, it was worse for City.
The Knights pulled within 14-8 on freshman Rolynda Contee's basket with 6:45 remaining in the first half before missing their next nine shots and committing eight turnovers before halftime to trail, 20-10.
Howard extended its advantage to 28-11 with 3:01 remaining in the third quarter, but it couldn't put the game out of reach.
City went on a 10-2 run to reduce its deficit to 30-21 during the first minute of the fourth quarter. The Knights later pulled within seven points on two occasions, but that's as close as they got.
After sophomore Lakeysha Holmes made both ends of a one-and-one to cut Howard's lead to 35-28 with 2:03 left, Jackson answered by making two free throws to boost the Lions' advantage back to nine.
The Knights then turned the ball over on three straight possessions, leading to a fast-break layup by Rebecca Powell and a free throw by Jackson with 29 seconds remaining that secured the victory.
Despite the loss, City coach Angelo Jeppi was pleased that his team was able to give the defending state champions some anxious moments.
"I'm not satisfied, but I'm happy that we played well at times," said Jeppi, who started two freshmen, a sophomore and two juniors. "Early in the season I think they were in awe at times. We've come a long way."
Freshman Ebony Edwards and junior Vanessa Griffin each scored seven points to pace the Knights.