Any team that expects to beat St. Frances' No. 1 girls basketball team can't let it get off to a quick start.
In Friday night's Interscholastic Athletic Association of Maryland A Conference semifinal, St. Frances scored 23 first-quarter points and St. Vincent Pallotti, which trailed by 15 at the half, could not make up the difference.
Despite a much stronger second half from Pallotti, St. Frances maintained at least a 10-point lead en route to a 66-52 victory to earn a chance to play for its first IAAM championship since 2010.
St. Frances (23-3) will meet the winner of Saturday's other semifinal between No. 2 McDonogh and No. 4 Seton Keough for the championship Sunday at 5 p.m. at Stevenson University. Seton Keough will play McDonogh at noon after Friday night's game was postponed because of the possibility of snow.
Fifth-seeded Pallotti (11-12) went into Friday night's battle of the Panthers coming off an upset win over fourth-seeded No. 9 Roland Park, but its body language early in the game seemed to indicate a lack of confidence against top-seeded St. Frances, which swept the A Conference competition during the regular season by an average margin of 20.1 points.
St. Frances rolled up a 10-0 lead on Nia Clouden's 3-pointer just over two minutes into the game. Pallotti cut it to nine on two Hannah Franklin free throws, but St. Frances closed out the quarter with a 6-3 run to take a 23-11 lead on a follow shot from Tyeisha Smith (18 points).
"On offense, we were swinging the ball and on defense, we were making sure we called out our picks and were helping on screens," St. Frances forward Mia Davis said, "and attacking them, too, so the bigs can get in foul trouble early and it can become a guard game."
That strategy worked as Pallotti's 6-foot-5 center Musha Alhassan picked up her fourth foul with 1:51 left in the first quarter and sat until the fourth quarter. Coach Tameka Addison put Alhassan (four points, five rebounds) in the game for offense believing she had two fouls, but the junior got her fourth on an over-the-back call less than a minute later.
Pallotti needed her to counter St. Frances' twin inside threats of Davis, who finished with 18 points and 11 rebounds, and center Tyanna Custis, who had eight points and 14 rebounds.
"She's able to change shots," Addison said of Alhassan, "and St. Frances likes to penetrate, so when she's in the middle we're changing shots. But getting in foul trouble there on a touch here and there really hurt, because she's a game-changer in the middle of the paint."
Even with Alhassan, however, Pallotti could not stop St. Frances' transition game. Six times in the first quarter, a Pallotti turnover or a St. Frances defensive rebound led to St. Frances points.
In the second half, Pallotti revved up its game behind Franklin and Amani Ball, who combined for 15 of their team's 18 third-quarter points. Pallotti also had a great performance from the free-throw line, hitting 18 of 19 in the game to keep it as close as it was.
St. Frances could not maintain its early energy and Davis and Custis had to sit out part of the second quarter because of foul trouble, although both returned in the second half.
"It's playoff basketball and I think we were a little bit tight on some of our shots," St. Frances coach Jerome Shelton said. "Then we had a couple of mental breakdowns defensively when we were trying to stretch out a little bit with the lead, but I think we'll do fine. We talked about it after the game in terms of the mental adjustments we have to make and people staying in their roles and making sure we're a tight unit as we've been all year."
St. Frances has shown great cohesion all season and that has been as big an asset to its success as its defense, powerful inside game and superiority in running the court.
A young team with a new coach and several freshmen and transfers, Pallotti is still learning to play together, said Addison, whose daughter Tian is a starting freshman guard.
"Maturity-wise, we really don't have that experience, that one person or even two people that are like, 'Hey, let's get this basket,'" Addison said. "They're young, all looking to each other… St. Frances has seniors that have played together for a while. They have a confidence about them, an aura, and they're intimidating, which is a part of the game."