When Philip Popielski inherited the girls basketball program at Meade High School three years ago, losing was as big a part of the day as going to class.
He took over a team that had gone a combined 3-63 the previous three years, and the prospects for the future didn't look much brighter.
Last night at Arundel High School, the Mustangs coach saw his team complete one of the quickest and most unlikely turnarounds in county history. With a 55-51 overtime win over No. 7 Annapolis, No. 17 ranked Meade -- four years after hitting bottom -- captured the Anne Arundel County championship.
"The kids just dedicated themselves to getting better in the off-season," said Popielski, whose squad won six games each of the past two seasons, forfeiting 11 wins last year due to an ineligible player. "Of course, having Angie Creek in your lineup sure does help."
Creek, a sophomore guard averaging nearly 20 points per game, finished with a team-high 19, including 13 in the fourth quarter and overtime.
Trailing by as many as eight points late in the third quarter, the Mustangs (20-3) turned to their first-year phenom for offense, and Creek began to produce with her slashing drives to the basket.
"I had to get this game," said Creek. "I had to win."
She and 6-foot-2 center Katie Netherton, who scored six of her eight points in the fourth quarter before fouling out, led Meade on a 13-2 run to give it a 36-33 lead with 3: 35 left in regulation.
From then on, however, it was the Panthers' inability to convert foul shots that made the difference.
The Panthers (19-4), who hit just 13 of their 30 free throws, missed five straight in the waning moments of regulation before Kerry Miller hit two of three with three seconds left to force overtime.
There, the lead changed hands four times before Creek's layup with 40 seconds left gave her team the lead for good. A pair of free throws by Dena Eldridge with 16 seconds left put Meade ahead, 54-51, and Megan Poehlman's free throw with eight seconds left iced it.
"You're not going to find a better high school ballgame than what you saw here," said Annapolis coach Dave Griffith, whose team normally averages 65 percent from the foul line. "You've got to attribute it to foul shots. The foul line hurt us tonight."
Jackie Edwards led all scorers with 24 points for the Panthers, and Kammi Cottrell added 12.
With the regional playoffs beginning Friday, Popielski said he had conflicting emotions.
"I want to be happy, I want to be excited, but I also know that we have to get ready for regions [at Old Mill]," he said. "It feels great, and I want the kids to enjoy it tonight, but tomorrow afternoon we go back on the floor and forget it."
The teams traded baskets early, with Meade leading by as much as two and Annapolis by as much as five in the first quarter.
The Panthers appeared to take command.
After going without a field goal in the first 5: 24 of the second quarter, Annapolis got a put-back from Jackie Edwards and a three-pointer from Kia Green in a 7-1 run to end the half.
The Panthers' defense was a key throughout the half, as it held the Mustangs to 15 percent shooting (4-for-24) in the first 16 minutes of play, also forcing 10 turnovers.
Annapolis led, 21-17, at the half.
Pub Date: 2/26/97