GARY — As soon as school ended Tuesday afternoon at Hammond High School, AN’asani Collins threw headphones over her ears to find her zone.
Opening night of sectional play loomed, and NBA YoungBoy, Lil Herb and the like were in the musical queue for the Wildcats senior.
Realizing this week might be the end of high school basketball for herself and hundreds of others around the state, Collins focused in and had her best game of the season, as did Hammond.
Dominant throughout the night, the Wildcats dispatched young Gavit 67-37 in the opening game of the Class 3A West Side Sectional on Tuesday night.
“I got myself ready all day,” Collins said after scoring a season-high 21 points, including 16 in the first half, against the Gladiators.
“I had to get it together and not slack off. I needed to play my hardest and forget about the regular season because I want to win.”
Lighthouse CPA, the three-time defending champ among the group, which gained the host Cougars this season, eliminated Clark 84-46 behind Daijah Smith’s quiet 40 points in the nightcap despite the absence of second-leading scorer Lyric Ward (ankle).
“Our goal is to set the tone for the rest of the sectional,” Lighthouse coach Thomas Smith said. “We are a game-at-a-time team, and we focus on one team at a time. We have to get the first game out of the way and work on the first and third quarters because those are our Achilles’ heel.”
The Lions (13-10) face Griffith (6-17) in Friday’s second semifinal.
Hammond (8-13), which started the season 0-6, gets hosts West Side (15-7) in Friday’s first game. The Cougars, who won their 4A sectional last season before realignment sent them down a class, beat Hammond 69-26 on Nov. 21.
“It’s an uphill climb, but we’re climbing,” Hammond coach Eundee Kyles said. “We have nothing to lose.”
The Wildcats got the lead up to 20 in the second quarter and controlled the passing lanes in the backcourt as well as the rebounding game to create transition opportunities aplenty.
Collins thrived on what she called the team’s best game all season in terms of attitude, defense and communication.
“She’s not a quitter,” Kyles said of Collins. “She can motivate, and she will take the team on her back and run with it. She doesn’t give up.”
Arial Watts, another refuse-to-lose senior for the Wildcats, dominated the paint for 12 of her game-high 23 points in the second half as Hammond defeated Gavit for the third time this season and seventh consecutive time overall. Imarea Rivera added 11.
Gavit (3-20), which had no seniors and only three juniors, got a team-high nine from Ronnie Porter, including a first-half buzzer beater when the Gladiators closed the second period on a 10-5 run to cut Hammond’s lead to 15, as low as it got the rest of the game.
In the nightcap, Clark (4-19) scrapped and clawed and only trailed Lighthouse 28-23 with 3:38 left in the first half. Then a technical foul on a Clark assistant following a foul against Daijah Smith led to four Lions free-throw attempts and the start of a 16-5 run to close the half. Smith scored 25 in the first half.
Shaiana Johnson, one of five seniors for the Lions, had 21 points in the supporting role.
The Pioneers, led by Darlisha Reed’s 18 points and 14 from Alexcia Adams, finished the season losing 12 in a row.