With Northern's girls basketball team's three-year winning streak in Southern Maryland Athletic Conference games just over five minutes from ending against Thomas Stone on Wednesday night, Coach Rod Stewart made the boldest move of the game.
With the Patriots already down by four points, Stewart pulled senior point guard Larissa Johnson. Not because Johnson was playing badly, but because Stewart knew she could do a lot more.
"I was shaking out there, I was scared," Johnson said. "But then once I sat down, he told me I had no reason to be scared, that I just needed to stay focused and just do what I'm capable of doing."
Less than a minute later, the 5-foot-6 Johnson was back in the game, running the Patriots' offense smoothly. And with 26.3 seconds left, she found senior forward Tolanda Smith for the game-winning basket as Northern beat the previously undefeated Cougars, 51-48.
The win gave Northern (9-2, 6-0) sole possession of first place in the SMAC. Stone's record fell to 11-1 overall, 5-1 in the conference.
"Once [Johnson] got back into the game, I thought she looked a lot more calm," Stewart said. "She played like the clutch player she's been all year."
After the Cougars' Jewel Clark missed with 17.1 seconds left, Thomas Stone was forced to foul, and Johnson, who finished with six points, found herself at the free throw line with 3.1 seconds remaining, shooting a one-and-one. She made both and, after a timeout, stole a Stone inbound pass at mid-court before being mobbed by teammates as time expired.
"What makes this feel so good is that we're still undefeated, even though everyone expected us to lose this year," said Smith, who had a team-high 17 points, including the short jumper over Clark that gave Northern the lead. "People keep underestimating us and talk about how we're going to lose in conference this year. But we made a statement against [Thomas Stone], and we believe that we are going to go undefeated in the SMAC again."
Leading 36-30 with less than three minutes to play in the third quarter, Northern almost relinquished its momentum. Clark made a three-pointer and a baseline jump shot to ignite a 7-0 run. Northern freshman Katie Manley grabbed a loose ball and hit a short jump shot as the third-period buzzer sounded to regain the lead for the Patriots, 38-37.
"That was such a huge play in this game," Stewart said. "It looked like Thomas Stone had just taken control and we weren't playing well, but when Katie hit that shot it really gave us an emotional boost."
And though the Cougars would go ahead by as many as four points in the fourth quarter, Clark was the only player with any offensive consistency for Stone. Clark scored a game-high 27 points, and seven of the team's 11 in the final quarter. She also made all 11 of her free throws.
"We just didn't get much production from the rest of our team," Thomas Stone Coach Robert Pitts said. "We need to go back to the basics. But believe me, this isn't over. It's a long season, and we are going to see them again."
If the teams do meet again, it will be in the Maryland 3A South Region playoffs--they play each other only once in the regular season.
Northern's victory showed that even without the standouts who made up the core of last season's 24-3 team--four-year starters Katie Andes, Chanel Spriggs and Jen Mitchell--the Patriots have experience and tradition on their side. It didn't seem to matter that only two starters Wednesday were starters last season, or that Thomas Stone was undefeated with a recent history of winning close games.
"We've been here before and we know how to win, and that means a lot," Smith said. "We have an attitude when it comes to winning, since we're used to it. We honestly believe we can win every game."