The Hampton High girls basketball team carried with it a 17-game section winning streak into the Mars Area gym on Jan. 8 and the Talbots were well on their way to extending that to 18 as they carried a 30-16 lead into halftime.
But all of a sudden as good as they were on defense in the first half -- holding Mars to 16 points -- they made the Planets defense look even better in the second half, as Hampton only scored 14 points and the Planets escaped with a 47-44 win that altered the Class AAA Section 1 standings.
As losses go, this particular defeat served as a vital learning experience.
"I think they realized that they gave it away when we were at Mars," Talbots coach Mary Bukovac said. "We were pretty disappointed with how it turned out.
"We had the lead at halftime and we didn't come out and finish the game. We lost focus on what we were doing and ran out of gas a little bit. Now they understand we need 32 minutes of basketball."
Hampton bounced back from the defeat to win its next six section games including a rematch against Mars, a 34-26 Hampton triumph.
Hampton is 13-7 overall and 10-1 in section play. With a victory tonight at home against Kittanning, the Talbots will clinch at least a tie for the section title. Mars (13-6, 9-1) was scheduled to play Kittanning last night and visits Knoch tonight.
"We really turned up the defensive intensity when we played [Mars] on Thursday," Bukovac said.
The Hampton defensive effort was one of its best of the season. Mars averages more than 50 points per game.
The earlier loss to Mars continues to serve as a lesson to Hampton.
"It was one of those situations when you have a lead and you know it is a tight game and sometimes they play not to lose," Bukovac said. "They were so worried about giving away the lead they didn't play the game they were capable of playing.
"Now we are playing more aggressively with a little bit more physicality. We are looking to make something happen instead of waiting for something bad to happen."
Hampton had to replace its leading scorer and rebounder from last season in 6-foot-1 Sara Pilarski and its starting point guard, Brianna Intrieri, both of whom graduated.
After starting as a freshman last season, 5-10 sophomore guard/forward Lexi Griggs is enjoying a breakout season and like Pilarski, she is leading the team in scoring and rebounding. Griggs averages 13.1 points, 8.4 rebounds and 2.2 blocks per game. In the second meeting against Mars she had 12 points, 10 rebounds and 7 blocks.
"[Pilarski and Griggs] are definitely two different players," Bukovac said. "Sara was a true post player. Lexi is that kid who is a swing player and can play the guard position. She can also post you up and score inside. Lexi has definitely improved her skills."
Jada Alim, a 5-5 sophomore, has stepped up and filled the role of point guard.
"Coming in and being a starting point guard, that is a role she has grown into," Bukovac said. "Early on in the year she didn't understand this is her team to run. As the season has gone on, she wants the basketball in her hands. She wants that ball if teams are going to be fouling us down the stretch."
Depending on the opponent, Hampton has six players who start. Along with Alim and Griggs, Maddy Nelligan and Courtney Collins, a pair of 5-5 junior guards, 5-10 senior forward Jordan Busshaus and 5-9 senior guard/forward Amanda Reese also see playing time as starters.
Reese is second on the team in points and rebounds, averaging 8.0 points and 6.2 rebounds per game.
"Amanda is a kid who just battles," Bukovac said. "Her heart is out there every game."
Nelligan saw limited varsity time last season but this year she has emerged as an every-game starter. She leads the team in steals, averaging 3.7 per game and she is third in scoring at 7.6 points per game.
The Talbots, who have clinched a WPIAL Class AAA playoff spot, wrap up their regular season at home against Plum Monday in a non-section game.