* Northern 55, Great Mills 52

The battle for third place in the Southern Maryland Athletic Conference girls' basketball standings heated up Tuesday night at Great Mills. It is set to sizzle Friday when the two teams meet in a rematch at Northern.

The Patriots' girls overcame a 10-point third-quarter deficit and a tenacious press by the Hornets in the game's closing seconds to escape with a 55-52 win. The victory improved Northern's record to 6-5 overall and 4-1 in the SMAC; Great Mills fell to 6-4, 2-2.

"I'm always saying that we play to our competition, and tonight they played hard and made us play hard," Northern Coach Clarence Tennell said. "It was a battle, and I knew it would be. I had my heart in my throat there at the end."

The Patriots, who trailed by as many as 10 points, were down 46-38 with 5 minutes, 6 seconds remaining. Then junior Monica Hofmann (team-high 14 points) returned from a near-five-minute absence after picking up her fourth foul. Hofmann went straight to work, finding senior Susan Smith for a short jumper and driving to the basket for a layup to cut the deficit to 46-42.

Northern found its first lead of the second half with 1:30 to play on another driving layup by Hofmann, who banked one in off the glass to put her team ahead, 49-47. The Patriots extended that lead to as much as 53-49 with 23 seconds to go on two free throws by junior Katie Faulkner (11 points, three three-pointers) but quickly saw that margin evaporate.

After picking up one free throw, Great Mills junior Faith Wassink stole an inbound pass and threw the outlet to junior Beth Woodburn (game-high 21 points), who buried her fourth three-pointer of the game to close to 53-52.

Wassink got her hand on Northern's ensuing inbound pass, but the ball went out of bounds and Tennell signaled for a timeout to regroup.

He had Faulkner take the ball out of bounds, but the result did not change. Wassink got a hand on Faulkner's first attempt, knocking it back out of bounds, and stole her second try. Wassink then was fouled while going up for a layup with 11.4 seconds to go.

"It's something we practice all the time, but we have to do a better job of making cuts and getting to the ball," Tennell said. "But give them credit; they did a great job of denying the inbounds. When we fouled Faith, who is such a good shooter and consistent player, I thought we were in real trouble."

Wassink missed both attempts, however, and a free throw on the other end by junior Jessica Johnson put the Patriots ahead by two with 8.7 seconds left to play. One final steal, this one by Northern senior Shannon Wilson with a four-tenths of a second on the clock, sealed Northern's victory.

"Obviously, this is a hard one to lose," said Great Mills Coach Brian Weisner, whose team has played just three games since Christmas break. "It's hard on the kids because we did so many things well tonight. But some nights you're going to miss shots, and you've just got to move on. They'll be more shots to knock down."

That includes Friday, when these teams meet again.

"Friday is going to be even wilder, I'm sure," Tennell said. "No one likes to lose on their home court, so I know they're going to try and return the favor."