The 3A and 2A Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association girls basketball state semifinals are set to begin Thursday at SECU Arena on the campus of Towson University, and for the first time since 2008 Howard County will have two teams represented.
Atholton, which will be making its fifth tournament appearance, defeated Long Reach on March 3, 53-44, to win the Class 3A East region title, while Marriotts Ridge clinched the program’s first state semifinal berth after beating Walkersville, 46-39, on March 3 to win the 2A West title.
“It’s exciting,” said Mustangs coach Caitlin Reese. “We knew this year had the potential to be a great year, and I think it has exceeded expectations. The girls have worked hard for four years coming through the program and earned the opportunity to be here, but we are all pretty stoked.”
Marriotts Ridge earned a top seed and a first round bye in Section II of 2A West after a 16-6 regular season. The Mustangs defeated Liberty, Winters Mill and then the Lions on the road to set up a matchup with defending 2A state champions Largo on Friday at 5 p.m.
Marriotts Ridge is led by an experienced group of seniors, which have played for Reese since her first year.
The Mustangs combined for just 14 wins the past three seasons, including a 5-16 finish last year, but is having a breakout campaign this winter.
“It’s great as a coach to see these girls come so far in four years,” Reese said. “I think even off the court it’s good for them to see that if they truly work hard for something [they'll] get the results. Coming in freshman year for the seniors that were here we lost a lot of games, but they kept on trucking. We came back the next year and every year we progressed.”
Seniors Sarah and Caroline Blalock are the catalysts for the Mustangs, averaging 13.9 and 11.2 points per game, respectively. Sarah Blalock has had an especially prolific performance in the past two outings, scoring 26 points in both contests.
“I know they have a nice all-around team,” said Largo coach Ayana Ball-Ward. “They have two guards that are pretty good. They are sisters I believe. They are pretty strong with the ball in their hand and they can score pretty well. They are a typical team from Howard County, and I got to get my team to adapt to how they play and to be able to compete with them is going to be the biggest challenge.”
Despite losing its leading scorer Chance Graham to graduation, the Lions (18-6) have made another run for a second-straight state championship. They earned a second seed in Section II of 2A South and beat Crossland, Gwynn Park and Westlake to win the region.
“Experience wise, yes I do think we’re strong,” Ball-Ward said. “Of course we are missing pieces with Chance not being with us this year and my strong seniors that I had last year, but the kids that we do have coming back they learned a lot from that group and they’ve shown it in this last stretch of the postseason.”
The Mustangs’ biggest obstacle is stopping Largo’s Stephanie Guihon. The 5-foot, 7-inch senior guard has averaged nearly 30 points, four steals, four rebounds and two steals per game this season.
“She’s brought a lot of leadership and a lot of dedication just to the program, putting the team on her back day-in and day-out and letting her teammates know that she is in the same fight with them. They just have to fight with her. It’s just been awesome watching her play all year,” Ball-Ward said. “Expectations are always to get back after you win it. I definitely think my team is talented enough to compete at this level, and we’re excited to be back here.”
Defense has carried the Mustangs all season. They have allowed opponents to an average of 40.5 points per game, and their pressure on that side of the ball will be key in slowing down the Lions.
“We just want to stay true to who we’ve been all year,” Reese said. “We’ve been a team that pressures on defense. We execute on both ends on the floor and that’s going to be important. We’re going to have to rebound big-time against this team. But we just want to keep focusing on improving on the things that we’re doing.”
On the other side of the bracket, Baltimore County District VI champions New Town (20-5) will face Bayside Conference champions Kent Island (25-1) on Friday a 3 p.m.
The Titans are making their second straight trip to the state semifinals, but this time it is with first-year head coach Richard Hibbert at the helm.
Maraiyah Smith and Khariah Kosh have led New Town offensively, averaging 14.2 and 9.4 points, along with about five rebounds per game, respectively.
Coach David Plumer is in his third year with the Buccaneers and during his tenure the program has lost just eight games, won two regional championships and recorded their second-straight undefeated regular season this winter.
Kent Island is led by senior Hannah Moran, junior SeRi Miles, and senior Ali Patchett who have averaged 17.2, 19 and 13.3 points per game, respectively.
Moran and Miles have both eclipsed 1,000 career points, and are huge factors in their team’s offense, which has averaged 70 points per game this season. Defensively the Buccaneers are allowing just 28 points per game.
On the 3A side, Atholton will take on 3A North region champion Milford Mill (22-4) on Thursday at 7 p.m.
The Raiders will try and find a way to slow down the Millers high-powered offense, which has averaged 77 points per game this season.
Milford Mill has four players totaling at least eight points per game and three averaging in double-figures. Junior Makenzie Pollard is the Millers' top scoreer, averaging 19.9 points, along with five rebounds and two assists per game, and is followed offensively by sophomore Savawn Hughes (17 points, three rebounds, two assists per game) and senior Jone’ Ayers (11 points and four rebounds per game).
“I think Milford Mill is going to be a really challenging game,” said Atholton coach Julia Reynold. “They definitely have the guard play as well, but I think some of our games throughout the season have prepared us for that. I think we just have to stay tough and focus on our defense. That will be the biggest key and to just start out strong.”
While the Millers are making their third appearance in the last four years to the state tournament, the Raiders are playing in their first state semifinal in nine years.
After earning a spot in the regional final twice in the past three seasons, Atholton clinched its first region championship under Reynold this season.
Seniors Ryan Jones and Francesca Vanegas were apart of all three of those region final trips, as the only four-year varsity members on the team. They've both had exceptional seasons thus far, with Jones and Vanegas registering abount 16 and 18 points per game, respectively.
“That was definitely a goal. I am very happy for our seniors who have been with me to be their third regional championship and just finally making it to that next level for them," Reynold said. "We got to enjoy it a little bit and then it was back to work.”
After earning a third-seed, the Raiders went on the road and defeated second-seeded Chesapeake-AA and top-seeded Stephen Decatur to win Section II of 3A East before knocking out the Lightning in the region final.
“I definitely think being able to start and play right away helped us get into rhythm,” Reynold said. “Playing on the road is always challenging. Luckily we did have a good fan base there and I think you just had to be mentally tough to go from game to game, and just really had to fight through it.”
Milford Mill earned a second seed in Section I of 3A North and beat third-seeded Baltimore Polytechnic, top-seeded Franklin and then fourth-seeded C. Milton Wright to come out of its region.
Either the Raiders or Millers will take on the winner of Frederick (24-2) and Oxon Hill (21-4) in the state finals on Saturday.
It is the second-straight trip to the state semifinals for the Cadets, who were ousted by eventual 3A champions Glenelg last season.
Makayla Daniels, although just a sophomore, is one of the most electric players in the tournament and has led Frederick with averages of 22 points, eight rebounds, three assists and three steals per game.
Senior Monet Wade is also a key player for the Cadets. She is totaling about 13 points and seven rebounds per contest.
The Clippers are a balanced group, and have four players averaging around double-figures. Mossi Staples (10.5 points, 4.5 rebounds and 3.6 assists per game), Iyanna Warren (11.8 points, 3.8 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game) and Robyn Howard (10.4 points, 3.9 rebounds and 2.4 per game) are just sophomores, but have paced Oxon Hill this season.
Senior Johnee Durham provides veteran leadership and has also had a productive year, averaging 9.9 points, 3.3 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game.
The Cadets and the Clippers are set to tipoff at 9 p.m. on Friday.