It took a while, but Dunbar's girls basketball team finally hit its stride in the third quarter of Thursday night's state Class 1A semifinal.
The two-time defending champion Poets used a 17-point spurt that began late in the second half and got rolling with two Kahla McIver 3-pointers to spark a 55-43 victory over Mardela at UMBC's RAC Arena.
Once the Poets took a 39-36 lead on McIver's 20-footer to end the third quarter, they revved up their defense and hit the boards to hold the Warriors scoreless for nearly five minutes of the fourth.
Dunbar scored 10 unanswered points to open the final quarter, running their lead to 49-36 on two Brina Smith free throws with 3:22 to go. They outscored Mardela, 16-7, in the fourth quarter.
Smith led a balanced Poets' offense with 13 points while Jaquerra Jackson added 11.
"We gave up a lot of second shots and they were outrebounding us," Poets coach Wardell Selby said. "We weren't boxing out. We were getting a little frustrated because of the foul situation, but that's part of the game. We went in at halftime and figured with them having eight players and with the tempo that we like, we would wear them down."
The Poets (18-8) face a rematch with Western Tech, a 45-40 winner in the other semifinal over Southern-Garrett, in Saturday's 6 p.m. title game at UMBC. Dunbar beat the Wolverines, 50-42, in last year's final.
The Poets will be playing for a record-tying seventh state title. In the 40-year history of the state girls basketball tournament, only DuVal and Mount Hebron have won seven championships. Dunbar, however, has been the most successful program of this century, winning all six of its titles since 2000.
The Warriors, from the Eastern Shore, have been to the tournament nine times but have played in only one championship game — 35 years ago.
Dunbar, which scored 26 points off turnovers, took its first lead of the game early in the second half when Shamar Prilliman banked in a 3-pointer for a 30-29 edge. The second of two layups from LaShay Stackhouse tied it at 27 — the first tie since 2-2.
In a quarter of runs, the Poets lost the momentum when they turned the ball over on five of their next seven possessions. Shakema Dashiell, who finished with 19 points, hit two runners and a free throw to give the Warriors a 34-30 edge.
The Poets then rallied with three straight baskets to finish the half. McIver fed Aliyah Brockington and then hit a 3-pointer for a 39-36 lead.
Early on, Mardela jumped out to an 8-2 lead. The Poets closed it to one twice in the first half, at 12-11 and then at 20-19 on Brockington's follow shot with 3:45 left in the second quarter.
Warriors boosted their lead to 23-19 on Briana Cook's putback with 2:32 to go in the half, but Dunbar's Leslie-Ann James converted a steal and Brockington hit another follow — with Mardela's Aeionna Joynes scoring a basket in betweeen — to stay within 25-23 at the half.
The fouls started to mount on the Poets right away, and Dunbar was lucky that the Warriors didn't take full advantage of that, hitting just six of 15 free throws in the first half. Four Poets had two fouls at halftime, but with Dunbar's depth, Selby used 10 players in the half.
"I felt as though people doubted us," James, a senior, said of a team that had to be almost completely rebuilt after last season, "but we came together as a team and worked hard and that's how we got this far."