During her coaching career, one that has produced 547 victories over the course of 38 seasons, River Hill’s Teresa Waters has learned that individual talent is only part of the equation.
Sometimes having a group that fits together and feeds off one another is the most important ingredient to success. And when it comes to this year’s Hawks’ team, which entered tryouts in November searching for the program’s first winning county season since 2014, cohesion was the one thing Waters knew she didn’t have to worry about.
“These girls play for each other. They are selfless and not selfish,” said Waters, who previously coached Oakland Mills to a 1A state title in 1998 and River Hill to the 3A championship in 2006. “Don’t get me wrong, I knew back during tryouts we still had a lot of work to do. But we had girls that had a good work ethic, good athleticism and good attitudes. We haven’t always had that in years past.”
On Saturday against Middletown in the 2A state finals at Towson University’s SECU Arena, the sum of River Hill’s parts added up to a 44-39 victory over the Knights for the program’s second-ever state championship.
Freshman Anhyia Smith led the way with 14 points, five rebounds and four steals, while Emily Masker (10 points, nine rebounds), Saniha Jackson (10 points, eight rebounds) and Kennedy Clark (seven points, six rebounds and four assists) all did their part for the Hawks.
River Hill (20-7) opened the game with 12 unanswered points and then held off several Middletown (24-4) comeback attempts, never trailing at any point. Knights’ sophomore Saylor Poffenbarger (27 points and 14 rebounds) carried her team, including hitting three 3-pointers in the final five minutes of the fourth quarter, but ultimately the Hawks made the plays needed to secure the title.
“Words are kind of tough right now. I’m ecstatic and just very, very thankful and grateful for these young ladies here,” said an emotional Waters in the postgame press conference. “They have been the core as far as our play is concerned and they refuse to quit. We knew this was our last day and we just wanted to go out and give it everything we had and leave it all on the court.
“And I think we did just that.”
River Hill wasted no time setting the tone, with Jackson making a layup on the team’s first possession. She followed with a banked in 3-pointer — her first three of the season — the next time down and the Hawks were off and running.
“When I got off the bus, I knew it was going to be a good day,” Jackson said. “But once I made those points, I was hoping it would give my team energy and [believe] we could do this.”
It was a stark contrast to the start during the team’s semifinal victory over Hereford, where the Hawks fell behind 9-2 in the first five minutes. Masker, who added a couple baskets of her own in the first quarter against the Knights, said it was a completely different feel being on the big stage for a second time.
“Yesterday, we walked in and everything was very shiny. The balls were new and it was bright, and it was a little intimidating,” Masker said. “But today we were very used to it coming back.”
It wasn’t until there was 1:15 left in the first quarter that Middletown finally got on the board courtesy of a put-back basket from Kate Pusey.
“I probably should have called a timeout sooner in that first quarter just to kind of calm the nerves down,” Knights’ coach Amy Poffenbarger said. “
Defensively, River Hill instituted a tightly packed 3-2 zone that forced Middletown into tough, contested shots. As the game wore on, Saylor Poffenbarger did her best to shoot the Hawks out of the zone by raining deep threes.
She hit two from beyond the arc in the second quarter, helping cut River Hill’s lead to 23-15 at the half. Then she found a little more room on the interior in the third quarter — including a layup with a second left in that third period — and caught fire again from the perimeter in the fourth.
During the comeback, she also led the team’s defensive effort with a pair of emphatic blocks that helped get the Knights out in transition.
“We knew what we had to do, we just needed to execute. We were getting all the right looks, we were getting everything we wanted,” she said. “I came out, our team came out, mentally knowing that we had to start it on defense.”
But for as good as Poffenbarger was, nearly bringing her team all the way back, River Hill never deviated from the game plan. They forced contested shots and, when needed, made big baskets of their own.
Smith, coming off a career-high 20 points in the semifinals, delivered seven big points in the fourth quarter.
“My teammates, they helped me manage my emotions … really the entire starting five,” Smith said. “
A pair of Poffenbarger made free throws with 33 seconds remaining cut River Hill’s lead to 39-37 — the closest the game had been since the opening minutes. And, after a made foul shot by Clark, Poffenbarger had a 3-point attempt to potentially tie the game with 10 seconds left.
But the try from the left wing hit the side of the rim and River Hill secured the rebound. After being fouled to stop the clock, Smith calmly walked to the other end of the floor and sank two foul shots to seal the victory and kick off the celebration.
River Hill 44, Middletown 39
RH (20-7): Smith 14, Jackson 10, Masker 10, Clark 7, Devine 3.
M (24-4): Poffenbarger 27, Shipley 5, Pick 4, Pusey 2, Carioti 1.
Half: 23-14 RH.
Reach Brent Kennedy at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on twitter @BKBSunSports