Tiki Nicholson has saved her best for last.
Hammond's senior point guard played maybe the best defensive game of her career and scored 18 points yesterday to lead the No. 2 and defending champion Golden Bears over Wicomico County's Parkside, 53-31, in a Class 2A semifinal at UMBC.
The Bears (22-3) advance to meet No. 4 Fallston, a 61-43 winner over South Hagerstown in the other semifinal, for the championship today at 1 p.m. at UMBC.
Nicholson, an All-Metro pick last year, struggled a bit this season with her move from shooting guard to point guard, but there was no hint of a struggle yesterday.
"I knew I had to play really well, because through the season I didn't come out and play up to my potential," said Nicholson. "We made it this far and I'm not going to just play. Usually when I play, I come out there with a blase attitude, blase defense like if I play a little bit of defense, we're going to win. Not today -- this is states."
This is Hammond's fourth straight trip to the title game. The Bears have won it twice but lost in 1993.
Nicholson showed how badly she wants another title with a defensive fire that led to nine steals -- most of them as the Bears blew the game open in the third quarter.
"Tiki had a great game," said senior teammate Tameka Harrison. "She was aggressive. She went after loose balls. I've never seen her dive into the stands like three times for loose balls. She really played hard."
Nicholson had three steals and four points in the second quarter as Hammond pulled away to a double-digit lead. She put on a big show in the third, snatching the ball out of the hands of Rams point guard Cortney Urban four times and converting all of them herself.
"I was trying to study her game, and as soon as I studied her, it allowed me to pick her clean every time," said Nicholson. "She was dribbling, then she'd do a spin. I'm so used to that because [former teammate] Kacy Williams did that and I picked it up easily from her in practice."
By the time Nicholson converted her fourth steal of the third quarter, the Bears led 40-23 with 3:53 left. A minute later, Brandy Peaker fed Harrison for a 20-footer that capped a 10-minute, 22-6 Hammond run.
Peaker and Harrison also helped pick up the defensive pressure after a lackluster first quarter in which the Bears had trouble solving Parkside's 1-3-1 matchup zone. But after Urban hit a running 25-footer to beat the buzzer and tie it at 13 after one quarter, Hammond took over.
Only Urban (13 points), Jill Livezey (10 points) and 6-2 Tish Wescott (eight points, 15 rebounds) scored for the Rams (21-4), but all five Hammond starters contributed.
Harrison had 13 points and five assists, and the inside combination of 6-0 Kellye Townsend (12 points, 12 rebounds) and 6-1 Rene Hines (five points, 10 rebounds, seven blocks) helped the Bears win the battle of the boards. Peaker also had one of her best performances with four points, seven assists and three steals.
"Hammond's a great team," said Parkside coach Lance Lewandowski. "It's tough to go against that defense. We play on the Eastern Shore and we're never going to see defense played that way."