Northwestern boys' basketball coach Tony Dickens is a bit taken aback by the Wildcats' runner-up status in the ultra-competitive Prince George's 4A League. Northwestern already has equaled its victory total of last season with eight -- against league competition -- and was one game behind Oxon Hill entering this week.

The Wildcats have emerged as the biggest challenger to two-time defending league champion Oxon Hill, a surprise position for a team mired near the bottom of 4A standings for two years and winner of only 11 games in that span. But after a 58-49 victory over then-No. 16 C.H. Flowers on Friday, the Wildcats are in excellent position for the second half.

"Even I wasn't thinking we'd go 8-1 after we'd play everybody once," Dickens said. "Honestly, I would have taken 6-3."

If not for Oxon Hill's rally from a 14-point, third-quarter deficit against Northwestern on Dec. 13 for 63-57 victory, the Wildcats would lead the league. They face Laurel and Eleanor Roosevelt this week and take on Oxon Hill at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Run 'N' Shoot.

"For us, it's all about defense," Dickens said. "We're a defensive team, and that's what we want to be known as. We want to be known as a team that makes it hard for another team to score. Every team needs to be known for something, so I want us to be known for our ability to play good, team defense."

Opponents had scored 56.2 points per game against the Wildcats entering this week, the second-best mark in the 4A League behind Oxon Hill (52.6). That has helped to compensate for Northwestern having no player who scores more than 13 points per game.

Four players average at least eight -- junior forward Jeff Green (13) and senior guards Ray Gamble (10.9), Wilton Greenleaf (9.1) and Devin Mooring (8).

"We just run a motion offense that gives us plenty of options," Dickens said. "We don't look for anyone specifically on offense because we have a lot of players who can score."

Largo Joins the Pack A 61-59 comeback victory Friday night by the Largo girls over Oxon Hill was their ninth consecutive win and first over Oxon Hill in seven meetings. It elevated the Lions into a three-way tie for first place in the Prince George's 4A League.

Largo, Oxon Hill and Suitland entered the week with 8-1 league records after the first of two rounds against county competition. Largo's lone county loss was an 81-74, double-overtime setback to Suitland on Dec. 13, and Suitland's only league blemish was a 62-53 loss to Oxon Hill on Jan. 7.

"It's going to make things very interesting now," Blair said. "For the past few years, it's been Oxon Hill and Suitland, but heading into the season, I knew we'd have a good team, too. We just needed to send a message."

Largo (10-2) delivered its message to Oxon Hill (9-3) in stunning fashion, rallying from a 14-point deficit with about a minute left in the third quarter. Junior guard Ciera Fletcher's driving layup with two seconds to play provided the winning points.

"This was our biggest win of the season," said senior center Melissa Washington. "Hopefully, this means that now, we're the team to beat."

New Year, New Success for Mustangs In need of a fresh start after the holidays, Bladensburg boys' coach Deo Djossou said he hoped 2003 would present his team a chance to turn around its fortunes.

After a 3-4 start in December, the Mustangs entered this week with victories in all four games this month. Bladensburg was 7-4 overall, 5-2 in the Prince George's 3A/2A/1A League entering the week, and Djossou said he was confident his team would not revert to early-season ways.

"Right now, our focus is that anything is possible for this team," said Djossou, whose Mustangs were in second place before Tuesday's game against Friendly. "We're confident now. I think this team realizes that it can be a special."

Four starters from last year's team graduated, and Djossou has turned to his lone returning starter, senior point guard Chris Nichols, for leadership.

A three-year starter, Nichols has scored 15.6 points this year, nearly 10 more per game than last season, with eight assists per game. Moreover, he has fed inside to junior center Darsean Johnson (17.5 points, 12 rebounds per game), who has emerged as a force around the basket.

Largo's Ashley Gibson is congratulated by teammates after making winning basket in 61-59 win over Oxon Hill last Friday, their ninth consecutive win.Same team! Melissa Washington, front, and teammate Vicki Collier collide while chasing the ball against Oxon Hill.Largo's Vicki Collier drives against Denesha Kenion. The Lions and Clippers are tied with Suitland for first.