Atholton senior Francesca Vanegas pushed teammate Sofia Harrison to rejoin the Raiders this season with a promise of a state title run.
Harrison took until the day of tryouts — second period to be exact — to officially hand in her paperwork to coach Julia Reynold, but she ultimately decided to come back and play.
On Thursday, while sitting next to Vanegas and Reynold following the Raiders' Class 3A state semifinal win, Harrison acknowledged how smart that last-minute decision was.
“Fran told me once I made the team, ‘we’re going to states.’ And here we are,” said Harrison shortly after helping her team beat Milford Mill 61-54 at SECU Arena at Towson University. “Probably one of the best decisions I ever had.”
Harrison finished with nine points and seven rebounds in 26 minutes, and defensively helped the Raiders limit the Millers’ electric offense to just 29-first half points and 35.6 percent shooting from the field in the game.
“We know they are definitely capable of scoring a lot of points, so we really wanted to limit their transition opportunities,” Reynold said. “We also know that they have a couple strong shooters so we wanted to identify where those shooters were and make sure to close out on them. On the other side we wanted to make sure we moved our feet on defense and try not to foul. They can shoot foul shots really well and we didn’t want to give them that opportunity.”
Milford Mill (22-5) went into the night averaging 77 points per game, and although Atholton (20-5) kept pace in the first quarter it allowed the Millers to get out in front, 22-21.
However, in the following eight minutes the Raiders let up just seven points on 21 percent shooting in what proved to be a pivotal second quarter.
“Their defense was very aggressive,” said Millers guard Savawn Hughes. “They stopped our penetration a lot of times when that was what we were going for. They were able to move around a lot and we weren’t able to get what we wanted most of the time.”
Harrison started off the period by knocking down a corner three to give her team back the lead. Atholton then held Milford Mill to just three made shots the rest of the half. Offensively the Raiders spread the ball around, as Ryan Jones, Bryce Bathras, Alexandra Hargrett and Harrison all aided in the Raiders, 39-29, halftime lead.
“We just have to be a little bit more mature at times with our decision making,” Millers coach Detoiya McAliley said. “In retrospect if we could do it all over again it could have been a different result, but you got to win with class and lose with class. They are classy young ladies so I don’t see them taking this game and being not proud of what they’ve done all season, because they’ve done a lot. They’ve upset a lot of people and have grown as players. They have lots to be proud of.”
Milford Mill opened up the third quarter with six unanswered points and ended the period on a 7-0 run to cut the deficit to 48-44 entering the fourth quarter.
Although Atholton had given up the double-digit advantage it never conceded the lead. The Millers pulled within three five times in the fourth quarter, but the Raiders continued hitting big shots to keep their cushion.
Jasmine Lane made 1 of 2 from the foul line with 2:56 to play in the fourth quarter to cut the score, 53-51. But following a Raiders timeout, Kelly Simons went to the top of arc and set a screen for Jones, who immediately pulled up and knocked down a 3-pointer to extend the advantage to five.
“That’s one of our more newer plays and one of my personal favorites, because I like shooting off the screen and the defense falls for it,” Jones said. “It was really big, but still the game wasn’t over. They still have good shooters, good drivers and they can finish at the foul line, so it was just a little extra push to stay motivated and stay in it.”
Lane once again provided the Millers’ with a timely bucket with 1:54 remaining to get her team within three, but this time it was Vanegas with the clutch play. The senior drove through the lane, took the contact and got her shot to fall, while earning a trip to the foul line.
“I just wanted to get a point in the game,” Vanegas said. “I am more of a driver and I know they are going to foul me when I go up, so I just went up and got it. It didn’t seal the deal, but it did give us more confidence.”
The Raiders defense then stepped up and did not allow another basket in the last 1:33 to secure the program’s third trip to the state championship game and first appearance since 2008.
“Milford Mill is a tough, challenging team, so we knew it had to be a physical game,” Reynold said. “We had a couple of focusing that we needed to rely on and just play smart throughout the game. You can tell the first couple minutes all the unforced turnovers I think the nerves got the best of us at that point, but at the end of the game these guys pulled through. We really rely on these seniors a lot and their leadership and composure to knock down big shots in big situations.”
Vanegas finished with a game-high 22 points on 6-for-16 shooting, four rebounds, five assists and three steals, while Jones registered 20 points on 7-for-22 shooting, seven rebounds and three assists.
Makenzie Pollard led the Millers with 15 points and five rebounds, followed by Lane (11 points, 14 rebounds) and Ayers (12 points, three steals).
“I am proud of the culmination of getting this far,” McAliley said. “Very few people expected us to do what we have done this season, so I am very proud of my team. I am very proud of the ladies who have led us every game this season. I can’t hang my head at all about these ladies. I am very proud of them.”
Atholton is back at SECU Arena on Saturday to play Frederick for the 3A state title at 8 p.m.
Atholton 61, Milford Mill 54
A (20-5): Vanegas 22, Jones 20, Harrison 9, Bathras 4, Hargrett 2, Simons 2, Cannon 2.
MM (22-5): Makenzie Pollard 15, Ayers 12, Lane 11, Hughes 9, Makayla Pollard 7.
Half: 39-29, Atholton.