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Basketball for girls hits its shot at the big time


THE ST. MARY'S High School gym was boiling, and boiling over.

Girls basketball coach Harry Dobson, who coaches in shirt sleeves and a brush cut, likes it hot, so he turns up the heat on St. Mary's opponents long before his players get busy.

The space-saving urban gym in Annapolis has only one wall of bleachers, and excess fans spilled onto the floor and out the door as if they had indeed bubbled over the sides of this event.

The occasion was No. 1 McDonogh taking on No. 2 St. Mary's, which meant that arguably the three best girl basketball players in the state were going to be on the floor at the same time:

McDonogh's Vicki Brick, last year's All-Metro Player of the Year; St. Mary's Emily Lipton, who won that tribute two years ago; and her All-

County teammate, Maria Smear.

Even the boys came to pay tribute to this gathering of talent. As soon as the buzzer sounded to end warm-ups, they stripped off their shirts to reveal semi-hairy chests individually lettered to spell "GO SAINTS" (though they had to shuffle their seating arrangement several times before they got it right).

They were there to cheer for the girls' team -- not to see or be seen. Not to hook up or hang out. "Fe-e-e-e-e-ef!!!" they boomed in baritone every time St. Mary's shot-blocker Felicia "Fifi" Holloway raised her arm.

They, like the rest of the fans there last week, were part of the mosaic that is the face of girls basketball today.

In the stands that day were student fans from both schools.

But there were also mothers with video cameras on tripods, for whom game films are not family keepsakes, but college recruiting aids. And there are fathers with acid stomachs and axes to grind. At this level, "Daddy's little girl" is someone like Katie Nelson, a sophomore guard for McDonogh whose father is the head coach for Johns Hopkins men, and she's good for 17 points.

There were nuns in the gym and a church deacon. There were reporters and photographers and television cameras.

There were Annapolis businessmen and government workers -- shirts and ties who cut out of the office in time for the 3: 45 start. Men there to see a good game.

The other sports teams at St. Mary's, both boys and girls, adjourned their practices and lined up along the walls of the cramped gym. They weren't there to lend dutiful moral support at the behest of their coach. They, too, were there for the game.

And there were school girls who play rec league basketball and dream of growing tall enough and strong enough and brave enough to play the kind of game they saw in front of them.

And what a game it was. The top two teams in the state -- girls who have played together, and against each other, in year-round leagues since the age of 10 -- battling in a cement-block cube reverberating with noise and suffused with steamy heat.

Brick and Smear were teammates last summer, but rivals this day. Lipton and Smear have been teammates for four years at St. Mary's but were opponents last summer. Brick and the Saints' Terri Daniels are good friends, but Daniels was assigned to shut down her friend in the second half.

For these girls, basketball is not about being gal pals and buds. It is about the game.

Down by seven at the half, St. Mary's tied the game at 42 going into the final period. With each basket, the crowd roared.

McDonogh won, 63-54, pulling away from St. Mary's in the fourth quarter with 14 points from Greichaly Cepero, a senior transfer from Puerto Rico -- another indication of how the girls' game has become more like the boys'.

Brick, headed for Maryland, hit 10 of 13 shots from the floor, driving the lane like a snow plow, pulling up for jumpers and cutting the net from the outside to finish with a game-high 22 points. Lipton handled the ball like she was conducting an exhibition and finished with 16 points. Daniels played a terrific game on both ends of the court and Smear did her trademark everything; both collected 10 points.

It seemed as if nobody missed from the foul line. In fact, the two teams had made 28 of 30 free throws before McDonogh missed a few in the final minutes. The Saints finished 17 of 18 from the line.

Beside me in the packed bleachers was my own personal 12-year-old shooting guard, who wants to play basketball for Pat Summitt at Tennessee. A coach who, just about nine months and one day pregnant, went into labor while on a recruiting trip and nearly delivered on the plane ride home.

I wanted my daughter to see the first rung on the ladder to basketball heaven. I wanted her to see girls high school basketball at its finest.

This is the future of girls basketball, I wanted her to understand. And it is now.

St. Mary's will play Archbishop Carroll of Washington, in the Dematha Invitational tomorrow at 3 p.m. in the MCI Center. The game will be televised live on Home Team Sports and rebroadcast several times.

Pub Date: 1/20/99

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