With the experience of playing in the state tournament last season, Largo (19-6) knew not to panic when Marriotts Ridge (20-6) stormed back in the second half to take the lead.
Instead the Lions settled in, adjusted to the Mustangs pressure and pulled away to clinch the 49-37 victory.
“I thought this game was pretty difficult for us to adjust to, especially in the second half,” said Largo coach Ayana Ball-Ward shortly after her team’s 2A state semifinal win Friday at SECU Arena. “I thought we were a little lax because of how we played in the first half and Marriotts Ridge really played well in the third quarter to bring the game within close reach. I think my girls did adjust well after the fact, but overall Marriotts Ridge they have a great team. It’s just two different styles of play.”
Marriotts Ridge executed well defensively to slow down the Lions’ high-octane offense, allowing just 12 points after the first quarter, 23 by halftime and limiting them to 35 percent shooting, while causing 24 turnovers in the game.
However, the Mustangs struggled on the offensive end. They made 3 of 29 from the field, and ultimately knocked down 21 percent from the floor.
“I thought they did an excellent job slowing the game down, which they did, but I thought my girls did an excellent job of controlling the game and controlling the scoreboard,” Ball-Ward said. “I don’t think they were quite ready for the pressure that they put on us and that forced lot of our turnovers. I am definitely happy with the way they finished. They showed a lot of perseverance and experience just being on this level last year to coming back this year.”
The Mustangs trailed 12-7 at the end of the first quarter, and only connected on one shot in the second period — a put-back by Mallory Conroy — allowing the Lions to slowly pull away.
Back-to-back buckets by Jocelyn Manning pushed Largo’s lead to six, and after two made free throws by Marriotts Ridge, Tanljia Hardy knocked down a 3-pointer with five seconds remaining to extend the Lions advantage to 23-14 at the half.
“We said at halftime, I’m sure Largo doesn’t go into a half with 23 or 24 points that often. A lot of their scores were up in the 70s. So we did what we wanted defensively, just unfortunately offensively we just couldn’t get as many shots to fall as we needed,” said Mustangs coach Caitlin Reese. “I said we had them right where we want them, and on defense we did. We took off our press and I knew we were going to put it right back on and it worked. We just needed to attack the basket a little bit more on offense. We were settling for some outside shots.”
Reese’s halftime talk resonated with her girls. Marriotts Ridge came out and caused five straight Lions turnovers to facilitate an 8-0 run, thanks to buckets by Caroline Blalock, Conroy and Hope Morath.
Casey Sullivan assisted on Morath’s basket with 3:55 left in the third quarter to cap off the run, which put the Mustangs out in front, 24-23.
But on the ensuing possession Tania White pulled up and made a big-time 3-pointer, which gave the Lions back the advantage, which they never relinquished the rest of the way.
“Largo is a tough team,” Reese said. “They’re big, they’re physical and we struggled a little bit with their physicality. We missed some shots here and there, but coming out in the second half we cut the lead… and that’s exactly what we wanted. The girls took to heart what we told them and they came out and they did it.”
Largo held a 32-29 lead after the third quarter, but Marriotts Ridge were within two for most of the fourth.
Casey Sullivan swished a jumper with 5:15 remaining to cut the score to 37-35, but Stephanie Guihon answered with a Lions basket on the other end. Jocelyn Manning added on two minutes later, although the Mustangs continued playing well on the defensive end, they struggled to get their shots to fall.
Largo then iced the game in the final three minutes at the free throw line, connecting on 8 of 11 to cement its second-straight trip to the state finals.
“It’s something that we preach all the time. Free throws and defense wins games,” Ball-Ward said. “For us to shoot 19-for-26 that’s awesome, it was a great asset to what we needed to get done and accomplish today.”
The Lions will defend their state title Saturday at 8 p.m. against New Town at SECU Arena on the campus at Towson University.
“All of the seniors have the experience of being there before and winning it before,” said Guihon, who finished with a game-high 14 points. “I think we definitely think we bring something to the table and I think that gives us an advantage going into tomorrow’s game.”
Sarah Blalock finished with a team-high 11 points for Marriotts Ridge, while Conroy and Caroline Blalock added seven points each.
“I couldn’t be happier with our season,” Reese said. “These girls sitting in front of me right here are some of the hardest workers I’ve ever coached. The seniors have been here since freshman year and our program has come a long way. To make it to this point is such a big accomplishment.”
It was a historic season for the Mustangs, as they claimed the school’s first — boys or girls — basketball region title.
Seniors Sullivan, Caroline Blalock and Sarah Blalock said they are looking forward to coming back and seeing their 2A banner hanging in the Mustangs gym.
“It’ll be a good reminder of what we did here,” Sullivan said. “What I’m going to remember most about this season is our chemistry as a team. We honestly felt like a basketball family, and that’s what we called each other. Basketball aside we had a great run, but I’m just going to remember the girls as a family.”
Sullivan, Caroline Blalock, Sarah Blalock, along with Bri Held were all four-year varsity members. They have brought the Marriotts Ridge program a long way, combining for just 14 wins the past three seasons, they surprised many after finishing the regular season 16-6 and earning a first round bye in the 2A West region.
“I think my favorite thing is just surprising the county,” Caroline Blalock said.
“And like coming in our freshman year we were kind of taken as not really a serious team," added Sarah Blalock, “But coming out this year just shocking the entire county it really made a name for us, and going all the way to win regions was just ground breaking for this program.
“A lot of other basketball coaches in this county always saw Marriotts Ridge as just a bunch of athletes. They are all basketball players and soccer players and not really basketball players as a whole. And just by our record this year and our intensity proved to the entire county that we are basketball players and Marriotts Ridge is becoming a basketball program.”
Largo 49, Marriotts Ridge 37
L (19-6): Guihon 14, Manning 10, Reid 8, White 6, Ford 4, Leach-Hardy 3, Jones 2, Watkins-Harvey 2.
MR (20-6): S. Blalock 11, Conroy 7, C. Blalock 7, H. Morath 5, Sullivan 4, Bergquist 2, Ohnmacht 1.
Half: 23-14, Largo.