Nearly one year to the day after a painful loss in the 2011 state championship game, the Aberdeen Eagles found redemption, beating the River Hill Hawks, 62-48, in Saturday's 3A girls basketball final to secure their first Maryland state title.
Last year's title game saw the Eagles beaten, 76-71, by Frederick despite Aberdeen holding a lead with 45 seconds left in regulation. That loss served as fuel for the 2012 Eagles squad that wasn't going to be denied a second time.
"These girls deserved this," Aberdeen head coach Stacy Liles said following Saturday's championship game. "We were here last year, and I told them we couldn't go into that locker room again as the losing team. It's hard being that team in the locker room when you don't win it. It's a big accomplishment just to get here, but it's just heartbreaking to lose in the final, and I told them, 'I can't handle seeing the eight seniors on this team if we don't win it, because they're not getting another chance.'"
"These girls had an outstanding season this year, and their record shows it," Liles added.
In Saturday's 3A title game at the UMBC RAC Arena, the Eagles trailed briefly, 7-6, two minutes into the first quarter, when Aberdeen's Kierra Palmer hit a two-point field goal to put them on top. They would not relinquish the lead for the remainder of the game.
With a six-point run in the final minute of the opening quarter, the Eagles went out to a 19-11 advantage.
"We came together as a team and realized we needed to pick up the intensity early on," Aberdeen junior forward Jimmia McCluskey said. "We knew if we didn't that it was going to be closer, like last year's [final], and it was either we win it all or we go down kicking."
Brionna Jones, the Eagles' 6'3" junior center, was held to five points in the first quarter, but eventually found her groove in the second quarter, scoring nine of the Eagles' 17 points during that frame.
"It was tough early on, with two girls on me, but I just kept moving, and I knew that they were going to get me the ball when I was in the paint," Jones said. "I'm just happy we won. After losing that [final] last year, it brought us together, really close, because we all felt that same emotion. And now, winning it together, we knew we could do it."
Jones added five more tallies in the third quarter, then closed out with six points over the final eight minutes to put her at game-high 25 points. Jones also led the Eagles in rebounds with 13 and accounted for all of the Aberdeen's blocks, stuffing four of the Hawks' shots.
Aberdeen outscored the Hawks, 17-14, in the second quarter to take 36-25 lead into the locker room at halftime. In the third quarter, Aberdeen posted 14 points to River Hill's 11, while the two teams played to a dead heat in the final quarter, with each posting 12 points.
Senior guard Lakeia Hayden, who bounced back from a serious knee injury suffered in the first game of the 2011-12 season, posted eight points and three assists in the victory.
"Last year, it was a tough loss [in the final]," Hayden, who wore a large brace on her right knee from her return from injury through Saturday's final, said. "I didn't want to feel like that again, as a senior. It feels good to have my last game be a state championship win. We knew that this year it was our goal to win states, and we achieved it."
Behind Jones in total points was senior Nia Alleyne, who scored nine. "It feels great to be a part of this team, to know that we were all part of it," Alleyne said.
Senior Takiara Fowlkes had seven points and nine rebounds in the victory, while Eagle freshman Kierra Palmer had five points, three assists and three steals. McCluskey scored three points, pulled down five rebounds, dished out three assists and recorded three steals.
The victory made Aberdeen just the third Harford County girls basketball squad to earn a state championship banner. Fallston broke the local title drought in 2009 with a win in the 3A final, then won the 2A crown the following year.
The Eagles, who made it into the final with a vengeful 80-50 beating of Frederick in Thursday's 3A semifinal round, ended their championship run with a nearly spotless record, going 26-1 overall. Their only loss this season was to nationally-ranked Riverdale Baptist.
"This is history for them, and you couldn't ask for a better team," Liles said. "I'm happy and I'm proud of them."