Catonsville rides defense past Lower Merion in Holly and Hoops tournament

Catonsville High’s girls basketball team hasn’t had much offensive rhythm in each of the first two games in the 26th annual Holly and Hoops Basketball Tournament, but the defensive hustle and intensity carried them to a pair of victories.

“I’d rather win ugly, than lose pretty,” said Catonsville coach Mike Mohler, after the Comets (7-1) defeated Lower Merion (Pa.), 37-30, at Mount de Sales Academy on Friday evening.

A day earlier, Catonsville slid past South Carroll, 42-34, at Notre Dame Prep.

“Both games, we had enough to gut out a win, but we look like a team that hasn’t practiced in 10 days and we haven’t,” Mohler said.

Fortunately, 6-foot junior forward Taylor Barton practiced shooting perimeter jump shots over the summer, to prepare her for playing small forward in college, and it paid off against Lower Merion.

Barton made a pair of three-pointers from beyond the arc to put the game out of reach after the visiting Aces nearly cut the lead to two points early in the third quarter.

Barton’s defensive play prevented that from happening when she blocked a fastbreak layup attempt by Sophie Arnold and grabbed the rebound.

“Whenever you get a big block like that, it ups your game and kind of motivates you a little bit,” said Barton, whose trey at the other end made it 20-13 with 6:30 left in regulation.

Her other trey built the lead to 25-17 with 3:27 left.

“Coach has given me the opportunity to shoot the threes all season because over the summer that is what I worked on,” said Barton, who finished with nine points, seven rebounds and six steals.

“She might be our best three-point shooter and we give her free reign to shoot it,” Mohler said.

The Comet defense was the difference the first half as they forced 13 Ace turnovers and built a 14-2 lead early in the second quarter.

Maddie Hunt’s three-pointer in the first quarter were the only points from the perimeter in the first quarter.

Lower Merion, whose most famous graduate is Los Angeles Lakers’ Kobe Bryant, launched only four shots from the field in the first quarter and 11 in the half, which is about how many Bryant takes in a little over a quarter.

“We knew our offense was not working at all so coach told us to pick up the defense and the offense would come,” Barton said.

The offense never really got into gear because the Comets committed 26 turnovers and got in foul trouble.

The Aces crept back into the game in the fourth quarter with seven free throws, but the Comets held them off, thanks to a big baseline shot from Renee Gast (6 points, 4 rebounds) and a rebound and pair off free throws from Deb Milani (9 points, 7 rebounds) in the final 1:37 to seal the victory.

Maja Wichhart (6 points, 7 rebounds, 3 steals) and Breya Wallace (4 points, 6 steals, 4 assists) also contributed for the Comets, who held the Aces to just 24 field goal attempts (10 made).

Lower Merion (0-5) was led by freshman Olivia Tevis (15 points, 2 steals), senior Rose Stahler (9 points, 5 blocked shots) and sophomore Gabby Richardson (6 points, 4 steals).

Catonsville has one more game in the tournament, Saturday (12 p.m.) against North Harford at Notre Dame Prep, and coach Mohler can’t wait to get that game over and get back to practicing.

“I would have felt twice as bad if we didn’t win (the first two games), but we have to get back familiar with our fundamentals and learn how to run our offense,” Mohler said.

Until that happens, the coach will have to count on his defense.

“We are really hustling and I think we did a nice job on the boards, but overall, we’ve got a little bit of Christmas in us and we’ve got to shake that,” he said.

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