Facing a taller, faster and more athletic opponent in the Class 3A state championship game, the River Hill girls basketball team believed that despite those facts, they were the more veteran squad.
Defending champion Aberdeen starts two freshmen, two sophomores and one senior, while the Hawks send three seniors and two juniors to the floor.
River Hill proved that it was the more composed team for 23 minutes – the other nine, however, totally belonged to youth.
The Eagles turned up their trapping defense and outscored the Hawks, 23-9, over the final nine minutes to steal a 51-47 victory and earn their second straight state crown on Saturday night at UMBC’s RAC Arena.
“We knew the only advantage that we had over Aberdeen was that were a lot older,” senior forward Vicki Rowe said. “We had more experience and chemistry because we’ve been playing longer together.
“So in the first half of the game, we were playing more mature and composed. We really were playing our hearts out but in the second half, we started to unravel, then we started to stoop to their maturity level and it wasn’t good enough.”
Junior guard Jenna Collins had 17 points and 12 rebounds to pace the Hawks – who finished their season with a 23-4 mark on their way to the county championship and 3A East regional title.
Rowe contributed 13 points and nine rebounds, and Julia Collins added 10 points and 12 boards.
“My kids played really, really hard but we’ve just got to finish,” River Hill coach Teresa Waters said. “It was there for the taking. We just had a cold lapse. We knew (Aberdeen) was very good defensively and I think the momentum swung when they were able to intercept quite a few passes and capitalized on it.”
Unlike last season’s 3A final in which Aberdeen controlled the tempo on its way to a 62-48 win over River Hill, it was the Hawks who dominated early this time around.
River Hill handled the Eagles’ full-court press with ease – sending quick, crisp passes around the perimeter until an open shot was available.
A 9-0 run late in the first quarter helped the Hawks take a 19-8 advantage. Rowe (five assists) knocked down a jumper and made two free throws, and Jenna Collins went 3-for-4 from the foul line to go along with another bucket.
Julia Collins nailed deep 3-pointer and Rowe made a jumper with 36 seconds left in the second to put River Hill ahead 28-18 at halftime.
The Hawks continued to have an answer for every Aberdeen run in the third quarter. Rowe sank a short jumper with 1 minute, 19 seconds left in the period for a 38-28 lead.
Eagles coach Amber Milnes called a timeout and made a defensive change. She pulled her team back into a half-court press, taking away the skip pass by doubling the ball handler.
That key adjustment turned the tide for the Eagles, who used their quickness to jump into the passing lanes and convert turnovers into fast break points.
After Rowe’s bucket late in the third, Aberdeen forced nine turnovers and outscored River Hill, 20-3, over the next 6:25 of game play. Sophomore guard Kierra Palmer took over the Eagles’ offense and at one point in the fourth quarter, she scored eight straight points for her team.
Palmer hit a step-back jumper to bring Aberdeen to within two points, then hit a 3-pointer from the right corner to tie the game at 41 with 5:42 remaining in the game. Sophomore Stephanie Jones (12 points) made two free throws on the next possession to give the Eagles their first lead since it was 4-3 in the opening minute of the game.
“I thought back to last year,” Palmer said. “Last year it was so much fun winning a state championship as a freshman.”
Palmer made two foul shots, stretching the lead to 48-41 with less than three minutes left before the Hawks tried to mount the comeback.
Julia Collins stopped a nearly four-minute scoreless streak with a 3-pointer, and senior Meg Sterling followed with another three to bring River Hill back to within a 48-47.
But it was again Palmer (game-high 22 points) who made a big-time play. After rebounding what would have been the go ahead bucket, she raced the length of the floor for a layup.
The Hawks still had a chance after Jimmia McCluskey missed two free throws with eight seconds left. River Hill came away with the rebound but McCluskey collected Aberdeen’s 18th and final steal of the game to seal the win.
“It was a fight,” Aberdeen coach Amber Milnes said. “We didn’t expect anything less from River Hill. It was a rematch from last year, so we expected them to come out aggressive and play us really tough.”
The Hawks took care of business on the boards against the Eagles, outrebounding them 51-26, but that effort was cancelled out by 15 turnovers in the second half.
“All the losers tonight are heartbroken,” Waters said. “But I don’t look at them as losers. We’re champions to have gotten this far. These kids worked hard. … We controlled three-fourths of the game but in that last fourth, we didn’t finish.”
For the returning players, their mindsets quickly turned to “next year.”
“I think that we can get back here,” Jenna Collins said. “Last year, we were in the same boat and we did it.”
RH: Ju. Collins 12, Je. Collins 12, Rowe 9, Poindexter 5.
A: S. Jones 10.
RH: Rowe 5, Sterling 3, Je. Collins 2.
A: Palmer 2.
Points off turnovers:
Class 3A state semifinals
Aberdeen 51, River Hill 47
RH 19 9 10 9 -- 47
A 10 8 15 18 -- 51
RH (23-4): Je. Collins 17, Rowe 13, Ju. Collins 10, Sterling 3, Nichols 3, Masker 1.
A (24-4): Palmer 22, S. Jones 12, McCluskey 9, E. Jones 4, Norton 4.
Half: 28-18 RH.