NORTH EAST - The Skipjacks earned their banner Sunday afternoon in impressive fashion.
"The players said from Day 1 this season, ‘We want a banner up on the wall for us,' " said Chesapeake College women's basketball head coach Damon Nichols, referring to the banners on the Chesapeake gymnasium's wall honoring each of the college's region championship teams. The top-seeded Skipjacks (25-3) met their goal with a 53-35 victory over second-seeded Hagerstown Community College (26-5) in the Region XX title game at Cecil College.
The Skipjacks earned the region title - and their beloved banner - by playing suffocating man-to-man defense. Chesapeake held the Hawks to four first-half baskets, built a 22-12 halftime cushion, and led by as many as 23 points while hammering one of the three teams to beat the Skipjacks this season.
"We knew we had to do two things - play hard-nosed defense and box out," said sophomore guard Ashleigh Jones, who combined a game-high 18 points with 10 rebounds, five assists, three steals and three blocked shots.
"We talked about boxing out, playing good help defense, and playing together," added Denver Clyde, who had 12 points, eight rebounds, three assists and three blocked shots. Clyde, who scored 20 points in Saturday's 76-63 semifinal victory over Allegany College, was named tournament MVP.
The Skipjacks, winners of 14 straight games and ranked 20th in the latest national poll, also claimed the District "O" championship with Sunday's victory. Chesapeake earned the district's bid to the NJCAA Division II national championship tournament, which will take place at Illinois Central College in East Peoria, Ill., March 20-24.
Chesapeake's defense held the Hawks without a field goal for the opening nine minutes of the first half and the first seven minutes after the break. Hagerstown had just 15 points with 12 minutes left in the game, by which time the Skipjacks had blown out to a 20-point lead.
"I thought our defense was pretty good," said Dr. Marlys Palmer, coaching her last game after 33 seasons as Hagerstown's head coach. "If you had told me we would hold someone to 53 points, I would have told you we should win the game. Offensively, we were just stuck, and that's a credit to their defense."
While the entire team played lock-down defense, the shining star on the defensive end of the court was point guard Deja Acree. She drew the assignment of guarding Hagerstown's Sonny Flores, who scored a game-high 16 points in the Hawks' 56-52 win over Chesapeake in December. Flores finished with 10 points, but eight of the 10 came after Chesapeake rolled to a 35-15 lead.
"We had to keep it out of 34's (Flores') hands," said Acree, who finished with seven points, four steals and four assists.
"Deja is the best defender on the team," said Chesapeake's Shantrel Oliver, who scored 10 points to join Jones and Clyde in double figures. "She did a great job on her (Flores) and our help-defense was really good, too."
"34 was the heart of their team," observed Nichols. "I told Deja, ‘You have to do the job' and she really stepped up and did what she was supposed to do."
Chesapeake - which never trailed in any of its last four state and region tournament games - opened the finals with a 10-2 run as Jones and Oliver each scored a pair of baskets. Hagerstown pulled within 12-8, but Clyde hit consecutive 3-pointers in a 31-second span as the Skipjacks opened up an 18-8 advantage.
The Skipjacks broke the game open with a 13-3 run to open the second half as Jones scored six points on two layups and a turn-around jumper in the lane. Acree nailed a 3-pointer, Clyde scored a layup off a nice spin move, and Oliver ended the run with a layup that made it 35-15.
"We put it together all season long - we deserved this," said Clyde.
The Skipjacks have set school records for victories in a season, conference wins in a season, and consecutive victories in addition to winning the program's first state and region championships.
"It's been a year of breaking records - we broke a lot of them," said Nichols. "But we still have some work to do."