For the first five minutes of its 2A state semifinal match-up against Hereford on Friday at Towson University’s SECU Arena, River Hill looked every bit like a program that hadn’t appeared in the state final four since 2013.
The Hawks committed six turnovers, made just one shot from the field and fell behind the Bulls by seven points, 9-2. The “jitters,” as coach Teresa Waters said afterward, were out in full force.
But for as unconfident as River Hill (19-7) may have been at the beginning, the team proved to be just as unflappable under pressure when push came to shove in the second half. After regrouping to take a six-point advantage into halftime, the Hawks never lost their lead after intermission and ultimately closed the game on a 13-0 run to earn a 57-43 victory and a title game match-up against Middletown on Saturday.
“I’m ecstatic. I don’t tell them that enough, but I’m really proud of them. They’ve withstood the test,” Waters said. “They’ve continually worked hard day in and day out … they’ve bought in.
“I’m proud of the way they responded today, they showed a lot of resilience.”
Anhyia Smith scored a career-high 20 points to go along with four assists, while Kennedy Clark (15 points), Emily Masker (10 points and 9 rebounds) and Saniha Jackson (8 points, 11 rebounds, 4 blocks and 4 steals) all chipped in with big games as well. During the decisive push to close the game, all four players scored at least one basket.
“When they were coming up, some of us were down so I knew I had to pull my teammates heads up. We were still in this and had to keep playing hard,” said Clark, a junior and three-year varsity starter. “After we started hitting our shots [again], our confidence grew and we started playing as a team.”
Hereford (22-2) fell behind by as many as 14 points in the third quarter, but the Bulls regrouped with an 18-5 run to get within a point, 44-43, with 5:52 remaining in the game. Cameron Smith (10 points) and Reese Harden (11 points and 7 rebounds) ignited the push with some hot shooting from the perimeter, while Brynne Delizio (14 points) and Isabella Peterson (5 points) kept it going with a couple made baskets in the paint.
“I definitely felt like we were going to get over [the hump]. We were all just hitting shots and really playing well together,” Delizio said.
But just when it seemed Hereford was poised to take its first lead since the opening minutes of the second quarter, River Hill regrouped and found holes on the back side of the Bulls’ aggressive trapping defense.
Jackson made a layup with 4:49 left and Smith followed by nailing a 3-pointer on the next possession to grab back the momentum for River Hill. Then, with 2:08 remaining, Clark hit her fifth 3-pointer of the night for what ended up being the back breaker.
“I think when we were on the roll, we kind of pushing up more. But that left the back more open for them to get around us,” Hereford’s Smith said. “We definitely should have adjusted to it, but [we never did].”
In the early stages, Delizio carried the Bulls’ offense with nine of her team’s first 11 points. Hereford was ahead 12-10 at the end of the first quarter, even as the Hawks settled in, and led by four points, 17-13, just under two minutes into the second period.
But River Hill’s defense strapped up and allowed the team to get out in transition, aiding a 15-5 run to close the first half.
“Coach always says that if we aren’t making shots, we have to make stops,” Jackson said. “So we had to fix our defense in order to pick up our game.”
In the end, it was that same defense — holding Hereford without a point over the final 5:52 of the game — that sealed the win.
Looking ahead to the championship contest, which is scheduled to tip at 1 p.m., Waters is encouraging her girls to enjoy the moment.
“I guess my main focus is just being thankful for opportunities and I try to embrace that with them,” said Waters, who coached River Hill to the program’s only previous state championship in 2006. “I’m grateful for them being able to experience this journey and we just are going to take it one day at a time.
“We are just happy that we have a tomorrow and we will see where the chips may fall.”
River Hill 57, Hereford 43 (2A state semifinals)
RH (19-7): Smith 20, Clark 15, Masker 10, Jackson 8, O’Keefe 2, Thompson 2.
H (22-2): Delizio 14, Harden 11, Smith 10, Peterson 5, May 3.
Half: 28-22 RH.
Reach Brent Kennedy at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on twitter @BKBSunSports