With a new coach, Howard High girls’ basketball team expected a learning curve. The curve has come full circle.

Howard defeated Centennial, 54-43 to win the Class 3A East Region championship Saturday afternoon in Ellicott City. Thursday evening at UMBC’s Retriever Activities Center, the Lions will play Frederick in a state semifinal Thursday evening at 9 p.m.

Senior guard Simone Wise led all scorers with 20 points for Howard (20-5 overall), and junior center Alauna Jackson added 19. Kenitra Alston had 14 points and seven rebounds for Centennial (15-11), and Sam Miller finished with 12 points and nine rebounds.

The Lions put together a 9-0 run from late third into early fourth to gain full command and complete a three-game season sweep of their Howard County rivals. After starting the season 0-2, Howard finds itself two victories away from its first state championship since 1994.

“You have to have some success to believe in what you’re doing,” said Howard first-year coach Scott Robinson. “To their credit, they stuck with it.”

“It was just a matter of working out the kinks,” said Wise.

It was timely passing and execution that paved the Lions’ path to UMBC Saturday. Robinson called a 30-second timeout with 2:19 remaining in the third after Centennial closed to within 27-26 on a basket by Miller.

Howard got the ball to Wise who dropped a short jumper, and April Kuhn converted one of two free throws for a four-point lead. Bailey Benz grabbed a missed by Jackson then was immediately trapped by a pair of Centennial defenders. The senior placed a wrapped around pass to Jackson, who scored for a 32-26 advantage with two seconds remaining.

“We definitely do that [passing] very well,” said Benz. “We feel the more people coming, we always find the open person or know where the double’s coming from.”

Robinson said the play was indicative of the senior reserve.

“She’s a very unselfish player,” said Robinson. “She’s multi-faceted, she can play anywhere on the court. She’s a very calming influence. She does all the little things.”

simone wise, bailey benz and alauna jacksonBenz completed the run with a layup with 6:15 remaining in regulation. Senior point guard Jocelyn Daniels drove towards the lane then passed the ball out to Wise, who connected on a three-pointer, upping the Lions’ lead to 44-32 with 3:48 remaining.

Centennial still had life at 46-38 with 89 seconds left, but two free throws and layup by Wise put the region crown firmly in Howard’s control. Centennial coach Kellye Townsend said the Lions raised their level in the second half.

“Howard came out very aggressive and we were a little passive,” said Townsend. “We just couldn’t hit shots. We played solid half-court defense and kept fighting. I’m proud of my girls for playing hard.”

Some Lion players had some difficulty cutting down the net during the traditional post-game ceremony. The last time Howard reached the state Final Four was 1994 when they claimed the 3A crown.

“We have good chemistry and the coaches have helped us improved in everything,” said Jackson, 6-foot-2. “It was a different change, but it was a good change.”

“My son said last night when I took the job did I thought we would have a shot at the regions. I thought we got better and better as the season went on,” said Robinson, who guided Mount Hebron to a 26-0 record and 2A state crown in 2008.  “It’s a tribute to the girls.”