Fueled by a 20-3 scoring run that started late in the third quarter, Aberdeen successfully defended its Maryland Class 3A Girls Basketball State Championship Saturday night, beating River Hill, 51-47, at UMBC's RAC Arena.
"We knew they were going to give us a fight," Aberdeen Head Coach Amber Milnes said. "We didn't expect anything less from River Hill, knowing it was a rematch from last year's game."
"I'm really proud of these girls," she said. "We've been saying all along that we are the best in the state and now we have the trophy to prove it."
Eagles sophomore point guard Kierra Palmer was the leader of the come-from-behind win. Palmer's defense helped Aberdeen create 18 steals, nine by Palmer herself, who scored 14 of her game-high 22 points in the fourth quarter.
With 1:14 remaining in third quarter and trailing, 38-28, Aberdeen called timeout. A Stephanie Jones left hand spin move, a Palmer steal and layup and a Jimmia McCluskey steal and made free throw started the comeback as the Eagles closed the period on a 5-0 spurt.
"We told them, we need to better on defense, make sure we are jumping the passing lanes," Milnes said she told her players during the timeout. "We weren't doing a good job at jumping the passing lanes during the beginning of the game."
In the fourth quarter, Palmer took over. Her steal led to a free throw by her and then she hit a short jumper to bring the Eagles to within two, 40-38.
A River Hill free throw pushed the lead to 41-38, but Palmer, who was harassed by the River Hill fans with chants of "airball," stroked a three-pointer that tied the game at 41.
Making both ends of a one-and-one, Stephanie Jones put the Eagles ahead, 43-41, the Eagles first lead since early in the first quarter.
Another Palmer steal and layup increased the lead to 45-41 and McCluskey added a free throw to make it 46-41 with 4:00 left.
Palmer ended the run at the 2:57 mark with two made free throws off a layup attempt that started on the other end on an Endia Jones blocked shot. Aberdeen led, 48-41.
River Hill made it interesting as Julia Collins (12 points, 12 rebounds) and Megan Sterling hit back-to-back three point baskets to close the gap to 48-47.
Palmer answered with a coast-to-coast layup to put the Eagles ahead, 50-47, but River Hill still got a off a few good possible game-tying shots with less than a minute to play.
After a scramble, McCluskey ended up with the ball and was fouled with 8.1 seconds left.
The senior missed both free throws, but alertly turned and made the final Aberdeen steal to seal the win. McCluskey, who was fouled on the play, did make one-of-two final free throws to close the scoring.
"Once we started taking passes away from them and going back down the court and making layup after layup, that's when we felt, oh, they are scared now, they're worried, " McCluskey said. "So, we got to keep pushing at 'em and pushing at 'em and eventually they're going to turn the ball over and we're going to end this game with a win, like we did."
Until that final quarter, Aberdeen struggled. A change on defense to the half court trap late in the third quarter was the key.
"We found our rhythm in the third quarter, so we could chop away at that deficit that we were in and then the fourth quarter came. Our defense just took over, gave us opportunity for fast break points that really ignited our offense," Milnes said. "When we went up, we knew we weren't going to go back down."
It took a while for the Eagles to get that lead, trailing by 8 to 10 points for much of the second and third quarters.
The Eagles (25-3) were also in foul trouble early. McCluskey and Endia Jones each had two fouls in the first four and a half minutes, then McCluskey had to sit for the remainder of the half after picking up number three with 1:30 left in the first quarter.
River Hill (23-4) out rebounded Aberdeen, 51-26, giving them too many second shot opportunities to allow the Hawks to grab the double-digit leads.
"We just had to find the person to box out because they were getting all their points off second chance opportunities," Stephanie Jones said. "We had to dig down deep and just have the will to win."
Stephanie Jones finished with 12 points and McCluskey had nine. Jones also had 10 rebounds and five steals. Jenna Collins added 15 points and 12 rebounds for the Hawks and Vicki Rowe finished with 13 points.
Eagles win semifinal
In Thursday night's 3A semifinal, Damascus stayed close into the second half. Then came another big Aberdeen spurt.
The Eagles made their break with 10 straight points in less than two minutes of the third quarter. With a couple steals and a lot of rebounds, Aberdeen broke open a two-point game and ran away with a 71-50 victory.
Stephanie Jones scored 20 points to lead the Eagles, while Endia Jones scored 12 points. McCluskey added 10 points, Palmer scored nine and Nazje Norton had eight.