Little has come easy for the Mount Saint Joseph boys basketball team lately and the No. 1 Gaels don't seem bothered by that fact one bit.
Finding themselves in a fiercely contested game for a second straight night, this time against No. 4 Glenelg Country in a Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association A Conference semifinal Thursday, the Gaels found the necessary answers in the closing minutes.
Junior forward Nigel Jackson, whose 3-pointer at the buzzer beat St. Vincent Pallotti in Wednesday's quarterfinal round, was again the catalyst. He made two baskets and two free throws in the final two-plus minutes to help the Gaels secure a 52-46 win over the visiting Dragons.
Mount Saint Joseph improves to 28-3 on the season and will meet St. Frances in the championship game, set for 7:45 p.m. Sunday at UMBC.
Glenelg Country, which got 15 points from Anthony Longpre and 13 from Joshua Hightower, finishes at 18-8.
Leading 44-43 down the stretch, the Gaels looked to Jackson on consecutive possessions and he responded, first hitting a short hook with 2:19 left and following that with a short baseline jumper with 1:27 to play. He went on to make two free throws before junior Darryl Morsell sealed the win with two more to send the Gaels to the championship game.
"I feel good," said Jackson, who finished with 11 points. "I know I had a good fourth quarter on [Wednesday], came on strong and [coach Pat Clatchey] put me in earlier this time, and I knew I had to pick it up and finish throughout the fourth quarter. My teammates had faith in me, kept giving me the ball and I performed well."
The Dragons were the only league team to give Mount St. Joseph a loss during the regular season — 48-47 last Friday after the Gaels won the first meeting — and, in the first half, it looked like the visitors were primed to make it two in a row.
They hit five 3-pointers to build a 23-14 lead with 3:45 to play in the second quarter before the Gaels scored the last 15 points to take a 29-23 halftime lead.
The run included two 3-pointers from Randy Miller, who scored a team-high 13 points; a 3-pointer, a steal and assist by Jackson; a tough three-point play and then a thunderous dunk from Morsell.
"We kind of got off to a slow start and then we had that run where it was just explosive," Clatchey said. "We got the ball in transition, hit some 3s, got a dunk and a lot of that started with what we did on the defensive end."
The Dragons weren't deterred.
They were down 44-35 when they made their final run, getting a 3-pointer and a three-point play from Longpre and then an inside basket from C.J. Wilson to cut the lead to 44-43 with 2:48 to play.
Jackson and the Gaels took over from there.
"They started hitting some tough shots and executing real well, but it came down to us having to grind it out again like [Wednesday]. We just toughed it out," he said.
After playing their ninth game in 11 days, the Gaels are looking forward to a day off on Friday before prepping for Sunday's title game.
"We're just looking forward to playing a quality opponent and compete for a championship. I think that's what guys work so hard for and that opportunity is presented to us," Clatchey said. "But we earned our way, been dealt a difficult stretch. To ask these guys to play nine games in 11 days with only two practices — I think it says a lot about the guys on our team."
Glenelg Country coach Kevin Quinlan, who played only six players up until the closing seconds, couldn't have asked for much more from his Dragons.
"I was very proud of our guys and hats off to Mount Saint Joe, they're a very tough team and have a lot of good players," he said. "But our guys have fought all year long, they're tough kids and I was pleased with the effort today."
1 Mount St. Joseph 52, 4 Glenelg Country 46
GC – Hightower 13, Longpre 15, Bernetti 6, Burnett 3, Wilson 6, Williams 3. Totals: 16 5-8 46
MSJ – Johnson 10, Morsell 7, Smith 3, Miller 13, Jackson 11, Wilson 6, Robinson 2. Totals: 18 10-14 52
Half: MSJ, 29-23