Aberdeen point guard Kierra Palmer doesn't usually have to carry the load for her teammates, but in Saturday night's Class 3A girls basketball championship, the sophomore played the key roles of leading scorer and defensive spark.
In the title game rematch against a No. 10 River Hill team completely undaunted by their opponent's speed and quickness, Palmer sparked the late run that gave the No. 2 Eagles enough room to hold on for a 51-47 victory and their second straight state title at UMBC's RAC Arena.
Palmer, who finished with 22 points, had three steals and scored 14 points in a 20-3 run that rallied Aberdeen (25-3) from 10 points down to leading 48-41 with 2:57 to go.
She credited fellow guard Jimmia McCluskey — the only senior in the starting lineup, who was in foul trouble early — with giving her the confidence to lead.
"Jimmia was talking in my head, telling me to keep my head, [have a] positive attitude and the fouls will come," said Palmer, who went 8-for-10 from the free-throw line.
McCluskey said, "I had to tell her, 'I'm in foul trouble, so that means you've got to step up. I can't keep driving because any girl could take the charge on me and I could be out of the game just like that.' Kierra, as a young girl, I'm proud of her today. She stepped up — her and Stephanie [Jones] — and showed that they're going to lead this team next year."
The Eagles, who trailed by as many as 11 points, finally hit their stride in the final minutes of the third quarter when McCluskey fed Jones (12 points, 10 rebounds), Palmer converted a steal and McCluskey hit a free throw to pull within 38-33 after three quarters.
Palmer then scored the first eight Eagles points in the fourth quarter and tied the game at 41 with a 3-pointer with 5:42 to go. Jones gave the Eagles their first lead since 4-3 with a pair of free throws.
After a couple free throws from Palmer extended the lead to 48-41, Julia Collins hit a 3-pointer for River Hill and Megan Sterling's 3-pointer — her only points of the game — brought the Hawks within 48-47 with 1:18 left.
After grabbing a defensive rebound, Palmer drove to the other end and hit a layup for a 50-47 edge with 28 seconds to go.
McCluskey, who made key defensive plays down the stretch despite four fouls, could have sealed with a free throw with eight seconds left but missed both. She then stole the ball and got two more free throws, hitting one with 1.6 seconds to go.
"Jimmia brought the girls in and told them we're not going to walk away without the trophy," first-year Aberdeen coach Amber Milnes said. "She just calmed them down. ... It was just about finding our rhythm, let's just chip away at their lead, get the easy baskets build our confidence back up and then kill them with defense."
The Eagles had to adjust in January when they lost center Brionna Jones, last season's All-Metro Player of the Year, for the season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in her right knee.
Coach Teresa Waters' Hawks, who also fell to Aberdeen in last year's state title game, went right at the Eagles from the first whistle Saturday, taking a 19-8 lead sparked by Vicki Rowe's three assists and six points. Jenna Collins scored 10 in the quarter.
Twins Jenna and Julia Collins, who finished with a combined 27 points and 24 rebounds, led the Hawks in dominating the boards in the first half (29-13) and in the game (51-26). River Hill (22-4) scored 10 points off Aberdeen turnovers.
The Eagles got in early foul trouble with 6-foot-2 center Endia Jones and defensive spark McCluskey going to the bench in the first quarter. Endia Jones returned in the first half, but McCluskey sat out the final 9:30 of the half.
Rowe said the Hawks, who won their only state title in 2006, felt their biggest advantage would be that they're older and more experienced than the Eagles, who start two freshmen and two sophomores, while River Hill starts all upperclassmen.
"We have a lot more chemistry together because we've been playing a lot longer together," Rowe said, "so in the first half of the game, we were playing more mature and composed ... but in the second half, we started to unravel and then we started to stoop to their maturity level and it wasn't good enough."
RH—Nichols 3, Rowe 13, Masker 1, Ju.Collins 12, Sterling 3, Je.Collins 15. Totals 14 12-18 47.
A—Norton 4, E.Jones 4, McCluskey 9, S.Jones 12, Palmer 22. Totals 16 17-29 51. Half: A, 51-47.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun