It would be easy for the Hagerstown Community College men’s basketball team to put a label on Saturday night’s game.
It would be, “The Final Last Score to Settle.”
The Hawks, ranked 14th nationally, will be facing third-ranked Monroe College for the third time in 12 months when they meet the Mustangs in the NJCAA Division I District 3 final at 7 p.m.
HCC has been on the short end after the last two meetings. But, really, there are no hard feelings.
“Have I said to our team that this is revenge?” Hawks coach Barry Brown said. “No. I’m not trying to build this up to be negative.”
Again, it would be easy. Monroe defeated HCC 79-78 in overtime to win last year’s district final and earn a trip to the national tournament in Hutchinson, Kan. The Hawks got tired and failed to hit key foul shots, which led to their demise.
The Mustangs came to town as the NJCAA’s No. 1-ranked team and rubbed a little salt in the wound in November when they laid an early-season 98-78 decision on HCC.
Still, before you think the Hawks are going to hold hands, break into a rendition of “Kumbaya” and just turn the other cheek, HCC is taking a different attitude.
“In a way, I credit Monroe for getting us here this year,” Brown said. “They taught us what we need to do to win at this level.”
In November, Monroe jumped out to a 26-5 advantage early before the Hawks reeled it back to within two. The Mustangs broke the game open in the closing minutes to make it look like a runaway.
“It all happened so fast,” Brown said. “I wasn’t upset after that game. I saw how we came back. It showed we could play with that team. We just have to play consistent basketball.”
The Hawks get the chance to prove it, this time on Monroe’s home court. It is a former ice rink that has been turned into a basketball arena. It still has hockey murals and a huge Canadian flag on the wall — something HCC’s Alister Chisholm, a Toronto native, is excited about.
The Hawks will have come a long way for the chance to face Monroe in New Rochelle, N.Y. And it isn’t measured in mileage.
“We learned from that game,” Brown said. “We learned (in last year’s district final) that you can’t win if you don’t step to the line with confidence. We learned that you have to play hard the entire game. We had so many chances to win it. We lost and it just happened to be to them, but we learned so much about what we needed to do to win it.”
HCC (28-4) has used the lessons wisely. The Hawks have balanced their offense with a pressing defense to run the postseason table.
HCC worked its way through four games to win the school’s second-ever Maryland JuCo Conference tournament title. Then the Hawks topped it off by sweeping a pair of games in last weekend’s Region XX tournament, starting with a 75-68 victory over Vincennes, then ranked fourth in the country.
Saturday night, it will be HCC vs. 3 Monroe for all the district marbles and another trip to the NJCAA national tournament.
“We can’t count on Monroe beating themselves,” Brown said. “Those guys are all D-1 players. What helps us is that most of our kids are big city, metro kids who are used to playing in those (New York type) experiences.
“We know that team because we have played them. If we can hang with them until the final five minutes of the game, I like our chances.”
The Hawks have other things than revenge in mind when they head to Monroe. A national tournament berth would just be icing on the cake.
“Everything we accomplished is in the past,” Brown said. “From now on, we just have to focus on the next game. This is our next game. Even though it is the tournament, we are looking at it as the final game of our regular season and we have to start thinking about Kansas.
“Our guys know the value of all that. I give Monroe a lot of credit for getting us here this year. They beat us by 20 points earlier this year and we respect them, but do they respect us?”