Defending state champion Aberdeen found itself in unfamiliar playoff territory Friday night, trailing City at halftime of the Class 3A North girls basketball final. Still, it wasn't anything a defensive tweak and small scoring spurt couldn't fix.
Fortunately for the No. 2 Eagles, the defensive tweak helped spark a big scoring spurt with 24 straight points, setting them on course for a 73-45 victory and their third straight regional title. Freshman Stephanie Jones scored 11 of her 33 points and had 10 of her 21 rebounds as host Aberdeen took off in the third quarter.
After No. 7 City took a 31-26 lead on Koraan Sydnor's runner, a change in the Eagles' 1-3-1 zone began to pay off — moving defensive gem Jimmia McCluskey from the back of the zone to the top where the quick senior could put pressure on City's stellar point guard, Dyzhanay Burton.
McCluskey helped cause six City turnovers in the run, and after she forced a five-second turnover against Burton, Kierra Palmer converted a runner to give the Eagles their first lead, 32-31, since the first quarter. Three minutes later, they had boosted the margin to 50-31.
Burton, who finished with 11 points and had three of her five assists in the first quarter, "kept coming down the middle on us taking shot after shot," McCluskey said, "so we had to put some defense in the middle, put some defense on the side so they wouldn't shoot 3s, and I feel like we came out harder in the second half, because we didn't want to lose. We want to finish the whole thing."
The Eagles (23-3) will meet Damascus of Montgomery County, which beat South Hagerstown, 60-42, in Friday night's West regional final, in the state semifinals Thursday at 7 p.m. at UMBC. The Class 3A state final is March 9 at 8 p.m. at UMBC.
The Knights (23-4) succeeded early with the same strategy that helped them upset No. 4 Milford Mill in Wednesday's regional semifinal, using the inside strength of 5-foot-10 Trana' Ford (seven points, 10 rebounds) and 6-foot Briana Carrington (five points, six rebounds). They outrebounded Aberdeen in the first half and that held the Eagles' transition game in check.
"They were crashing the boards really hard," Stephanie Jones said. "We weren't boxing out at all and they were just getting all the putbacks. We were letting them attack the basket at their own will."
At first, the Eagles couldn't get anything to fall from the perimeter, which allowed City to hold tight in their zone. Nazje Norton, who hit six 3-pointers in the semifinal win over Digital Harbor, struggled Friday night, but in the second half, Stephanie Jones hit four 3-pointers — two in the 24-point run — and that finally helped open up the inside.
Endia Jones, the Eagles 6-foot-2 freshman center, had nine of her 11 points in the second half and finished with eight rebounds. Palmer, a sophomore point guard, also scored six of her 11 points in the second-quarter run, and she contributed five assists and four steals in the game.
As the Eagles got hot in the third quarter, the Knights went cold. Aberdeen took as many shots as City hit. While the Knights, who got 15 points from Sydnor, shot 3-for-11 from the field in the quarter, the Eagles shot 11-for-22 and outrebounded City, 17-5.
"We thought we could get back in our zone and hopefully they wouldn't get hot, but they got hot in the second half," City coach George Petrides said. "Their No. 24 [Stephanie Jones] is unbelievable. She's the best player that we've played against this year. That's for sure, but she's got a good supporting cast."
C—Burton 11, Ford 7, Bea 3, Sydnor 15, Carrington 5, Gladden 4. Totals19 5-15 45.
A—Norton 8, E.Jones 11, McCluskey 8, S.Jones 33, Palmer 11, Taylor 2. Totals 28 13-19 73. Half: C, 28-24.