The prep work is complete and the pairings are set as the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association A Conference basketball playoffs get under way Wednesday with the quarterfinal round.
Among the field of eight — No. 1 Mount Saint Joseph (26-3) claimed the Black Division with a 15-1 mark and No. 6 St. Frances (26-8) took the Red Division at 12-4 — some teams come into the postseason on a roll, while others look to hit their strides when it counts the most. The consensus is it's a deep and talented cast of teams and getting three wins to bring home the championship won't be easy.
"It's going to take focus for three games," said St. Frances coach Nick Myles. "Top to bottom, this is the most balanced since I've been in it — any team can win it."
Wednesday's slate has St. Vincent Pallotti (14-13, 7-9) at Mount St. Joseph; Gilman (11-14, 5-11) at St. Frances; and No. 4 Glenelg Country (17-7, 11-5) at Calvert Hall (16-12, 9-7) playing at 7 p.m. with McDonogh (17-10, 8-8) at No. 7 John Carroll (20-9, 12-4) starting at 6 p.m.
The tournament continues with the semifinals on Thursday. Sunday's championship game is set for 7:45 p.m. at UMBC.
No team is looking past Wednesday's opening round.
Pallotti, which finished in fourth in the Red Division, was able to stay with Mount Saint Joseph most of the way before falling, 56-52, in the teams' regular-season game on Jan. 10. The Panthers also showed they could win on the road when they upset then-No. 1 St. Frances, 60-58, on Dec. 9.
Glenelg Country, which handed Mount Saint Joseph it's only league loss on Friday, beat host Calvert Hall during the regular season and McDonogh also has a win against John Carroll. St. Frances was the only team to have a comfortable win among the opening-round matchups, having defeated Gilman, 79-57, on Dec. 21.
In Mount Saint Joseph's regular-season win over Pallotti, it came down to some defensive stops and free throws at the end. Gaels coach Pat Clatchey said a collective team effort will be needed to win Wednesday and beyond.
"It's the playoffs: It's one game and move on or lose and it's over," he said. "It starts on the defensive end and you have to finish it off with rebounds, not giving up second shots or fouling. Take care of the ball, get good shots and maybe generate some offense off your defense."
McDonogh struggled down the stretch, losing four straight league games before reaching the playoffs with Monday's thrilling overtime win against Mount Carmel. The Eagles got a 3-pointer from Damian Chong-Qui with two seconds left in the fourth quarter to send the game into overtime.
Can that momentum carry them into a deep playoff run? John Carroll, led by sophomore guard Immanuel Quickley, plans to do all it can to send the Eagles home early.
At St. Frances, the Panthers will lean on their senior backcourt of Daquan Bracey and Kurk Lee Jr. to bring home a championship, while Glenelg Country looks to knock off defending champion Calvert Hall.
"It's such a balanced league this year," John Carroll coach Tony Martin said. "There's no real dominant team, but there's a lot of really good teams. Matchups are going to play a key."