As the four teams remaining in the IAAM A Conference basketball playoffs prepare for Friday night’s semifinals, one question stands out: Can anybody beat St. Frances?
The No. 1 Panthers swept through the regular-season conference schedule, going 12-0. They beat their six conference opponents by an average of 20.1 points. Only three times did they win by less than 15.
As the tournament’s No. 1 seed, the Panthers (22-3) had a bye into the semifinal where they will host fifth-seeded St. Vincent Pallotti at 5:30 p.m. At the same time Friday night, No. 2 McDonogh will host No. 4 and third-seeded Seton Keough.
To Seton Keough coach Tom Gizzi, this year’s St. Frances team resembles those that won eight A Conference titles between 2001 and 2010, including six in a row. Gizzi coached against those teams while at McDonogh for five seasons through 2008, including an overtime loss to the Panthers in the 2007 title game.
"They always have a lot of talent,” Gizzi said, “but this year they found some great team chemistry and I think they’ve played really well together. I’ve been an outsider in the A Conference for the last six or seven years, but I think in that gap, their talent was there but their chemistry was missing. If I look at the St. Frances team now, it reminds me of back in the day when (Mi-Khida) Hankins was there, when Angel (McCoughtry) was there, when there was really good talent and really good chemistry – LaKisha Walker and that whole crew (in 2007). They were good and they played really well together and they really liked each other – and you can see that this year.”
No. 2 McDonogh gave the Panthers their closest game, a 64-59 nailbiter Feb. 1 at McDonogh, but the Panthers pulled it out despite playing the final 3:48 with only two starters on the floor. Foul trouble benched the other three.
Coach Jerome Shelton’s Panthers have the area’s best inside-outside game with forward Mia Davis and center Tyanna Custis along with guards Tyeisha Smith, Nia Clouden and Shawnkia McCallum. The team isn't deep, with just nine players on the roster, but the Panthers get strong minutes from their bench, especially guard Mikiara Carroll. They play fast, physical basketball and Davis can dominate the boards.
“They just come at you," Spalding coach William "Bookie" Rosemond said. "You’re playing and doing everything you can do and then they’re like, ‘Let’s put it in a higher gear,’ and next thing you know it’s a 10-0 run. They’re good, but there’s lots of talent in this league, so I think anyone can beat them. I think McDonogh-Seton Keough’s going to be a tough game and Pallotti’s young, like we are, and it looks like they’re putting it together.”
While St. Frances is the clear frontrunner, no one is ready to count out the other teams.
McDonogh, which has won three of the past four A Conference titles, made up a lot of ground between its first game with the Panthers, a 26-point loss, and the Feb. 1 game, just 12 days later.
Brad Rees’ Eagles (18-4) struggled with injuries early in the season but still lost only to St. Frances in conference play. They’ve gotten a boost from the return of guard Kolbi Green, the hero of last year’s championship game when she hit three free throws with no time left to send the game into overtime where McDonogh won, 59-52, over Roland Park. The junior had been sidelined most of the season with a foot injury, sitting on the bench in a boot, but she’s been back for the past five games.
She adds to a backcourt that includes sophomores Taleah Dixon and Kayla Liles, freshmen Aleah Nelson and Jessica Booth and senior Savannah Buchanan. Inside, the Eagles rely on senior forward Andrea Robinson, who had been one of the conference’s best defensive players but has now improved her offensive output. With junior forward Morgan Jacobs lost all season to a torn ACL, freshman forward AJ Davis has also played a bigger role than expected.
The Eagles defeated seventh seed John Carroll, 59-35, in the quarterfinal.
Seton Keough’s roster doesn’t include any big stars, but the Gators (17-7), who beat Archbishop Spalding 49-42 in Wednesday’s quarterfinal, thrive on playing together with eight or nine players who can make a game-changing play.
Junior Kayla Bacon transferred from St. Timothy’s and gave the backcourt an instant boost, joining senior Summer Fields and juniors Kaila Jennings and Sydney Mitchell. Inside, the Gators also rely on a couple of juniors, Brittani Smith and Yasmin Lewis while senior Amanda Emory provides key minutes off the bench.
The wild card in the final four is Pallotti, which upset No. 9 and fourth-seeded Roland Park 59-50 in the quarterfinals. The Panthers won only three conference games during the regular season, but opponents have often commented on the amount of talent first-year coach Tameka Addison has on her roster.
With a new coach, three freshman and a couple of key transfers, including sophomore guard Makayla Pippen, who played at the Institute of Notre Dame last season, and 6-foot-5 junior center Musharapha Alhassan, who began her career at National Christian Academy, the Panthers needed time to adjust. Freshman guard Tian Addison, the coach’s daughter, is also a starter.
They also had two strong returning players in sophomore guard Hannah Franklin and junior forward/guard Amani Bell.
The Panthers are 10-11, but with the win over Roland Park, they have won five times as many games as they did a year ago.
Despite McDonogh's comeback and Seton Keough and Pallotti's growth, St. Frances remains a heavy favorite for its combination of talent and chemistry.
“The top teams in the A Conference -- everybody has a chance to win,” Gizzi said, “but probability tells you that St. Frances is in control of that. We all knew the championship was going to have to go to through McDonogh or St. Frances. On any given day, any team can win, but it’s certainly an uphill battle and you’ve got to give St. Frances a lot of respect.”