Knowing that a loss would eliminate it from Interhigh East title contention, Ballou overcame a slow start and a valiant effort by Phelps to win, 88-78, last night at Mary Martha Washington School.

If it wins Tuesday at Anacostia, Ballou (14-7, 7-2) will take the title.

The apparently less talented and definitely smaller Phelps Panthers (10-11, 6-3) played on heart and determination, managing to get a nine-point lead late in the first half before Ballou raised its level of play.

The Knights owe their victory in large part to senior point guard Keith Thomas, who got hot in the second half, scoring 16 of his game-high 26 points.

After Phelps closed to 31-22 on a basket by guard Roger Bell (10 points), Thomas stepped forward, as he was forced to shoot more with his team behind. When Thomas's shots started to fall, Phelps switched from a 2-3 zone to a box-and-one to try to slow him down.

But his passes (10 assists) found forward Reginald Bland (22 points) and guard Marc Dozier (13 points) for baskets down low as Ballou's superior size and strength was too much.

"Keith is one of my key people," said Ballou Coach Wanda Oates. "I thought our defense and quicker guards were the difference in the game."

The Panthers' aggressive trapping defense was hampered by the referees, who called a close game.

"The refs took things away from us by calling the game close," said Phelps Coach Richard Jackson. "With the talent we have, we have to trap, but the refs who called this game close took away our aggressiveness.

"But Ballou came to play. My hat goes off to them. They deserve to win."

Phelps was helped by guard Delonte Tyler's 23 points and forward Clifton Lockart's 22.

Neither team could get into a consistent flow, primarily because of turnovers; Ballou had 23, Phelps 20.

"Coach told us just to go out there and play hard," said Thomas. "We played good defense and it got our fast break going. . . . This will build our momentum going into the {Interhigh} tournament."