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All season, the coaching staff and players for the College of Southern Maryland women’s basketball team contended that this was not going to be just another season where the Hawks were a mere bottom feeder in the Maryland Junior College Conference.

While they displayed signs supporting such a claim during an improved regular season from a year ago, the Hawks saved their biggest statement for the most important time of the year.

The postseason stage in February proved the program is on the rise and should be ready to contend in the regular and post seasons of the conference and Region XX by next year.

The Hawks finished with a 9-13 overall record, tripling their wins from a year ago during a 3-21 season and marking their most victories since the 2006-07 campaign. They also were an improved 4-7 in the Maryland JUCO, doubling last year’s league wins.

But it was their two playoff performances in the Maryland JUCO tournament that most underscored the Hawks’ upward surge.

The Hawks’ 59-45 playoff victory Feb. 12 at home over Garrett, with the same league record during the regular season, enabled the program to celebrate its first postseason win in years.

But even that breakthrough was overshadowed by what the eighth-seeded Hawks did in Bel Air during the tournament quarterfinals, taking top-seeded and heavy favorite Harford to the brink in a 58-57 shortcoming on Valentine’s Day that came down to a missed free throw.

With 2.7 seconds left, freshman guard Alex Manning (Northern High School graduate) missed the front end of a one-and-one free throw that could have tied the contest for the Hawks and put them in position to pull out a huge upset.

Manning was the Hawks’ go-to player offensively in the game with a team-high 20 points on 9-of-11 shooting.

Harford, which saw a much different Hawks team after downing them by 31 points at CSM in early January, advanced to the tournament final and fell by a 59-53 outcome to second-seeded Chesapeake.

“We competed against everybody in the league at least for a half [each game] all year,” Hawks head coach Andy Norris said. “From three wins last year to nine [this season], we tripled our win total and expect to do greater things next year. We’re looking to be much improved next year as well, from the kids looking to sign with the three we have coming back.”

After losing five straight to superior competition in January to fall to 6-11, the Hawks rebounded in February with three wins in their final five games.

Their two losses during that hot stretch were by a combined three points, 69-67 to Dundalk and the one-point playoff loss to Harford. Dundalk and Harford finished with a combined record of 44-13.

“We were pretty happy,” Norris said. “As a coach, you want your team to be playing its best ball at the end [of the year]. It was a nice run at the end.”

The Hawks’ comeback nature throughout the year was on display in their near upset of Harford, down 55-45 with 5 minutes 47 seconds left.

Keyed by first-team All-Region XX selection Taylor White (North Point) and Manning, the Hawks responded with a 12-0 run to take a 57-55 lead inside the final minute.

“All year, it was crazy,” the Hawks coach noted. “We’d get down big [to teams] and then come back.”

Harford’s Tiffany Taylor, who finished with a game-high 31 points, banked in the last of her eight three-pointers with 48 seconds left to give Harford a 58-57 lead, setting the stage for Manning to draw the foul in the bonus situation in the final seconds.

White finished with 16 points, nine rebounds and four blocks from her forward spot to cap a brilliant season that saw her lead the nation in rebounding at 15.4 per game. She averaged 18.6 points per game.

The good news for the Hawks is White plans to return next year for her sophomore campaign.

“She’s definitely one of the top players in the league. Those are pretty big numbers,” Norris raved of the 6-foot White’s production. “Alex Manning will hopefully be coming back, too. I could see her confidence growing toward the end of the season.”

The Hawks were forced to play most of the contest against Harford without starting point guard Jordan Morgan, riddled with foul trouble throughout, and they still had a chance to prevail.

Carley Flowers (McDonough) had 13 points in the season-ending loss that turned heads for the Hawks.

In the win over Garrett that saw the Hawks break open a tight 23-22 lead at the half, Jordan led the way with 19 points, while White and Flowers scored 16 and 15, respectively.

White also hauled in an eye-popping 20 rebounds in the playoff win.

Norris felt his club could have been a factor in the regional tournament had it been able to attend. A sub-.500 team’s entry into regionals is at the discretion of the college.

Next year, Norris and company are confident they will get their chance to shine at regionals and even more so in the conference tournament.

“I’m telling all our recruits that we’re expecting to compete for championships,” he said. He was a high school coach at Westlake before coming to CSM last year. “If we get the kids I expect to be getting [as recruits], we’re going to be right in the thick of things.

“[This kind of postseason] lights a fire under you.”

dcogle@somdnews.com