Tyeisha Smith and her St. Frances girls basketball teammates started talking about winning the Interscholastic Athletic Association of Maryland A Conference championship long before this season began.
When the No. 1 Panthers finished an undefeated run through conference play with a 58-46 victory over No. 2 McDonogh on Sunday night at Stevenson for the program's ninth IAAM championship and first since 2010, the senior guard couldn't hold back her tears of joy.
"It feels great," said Smith, who scored 21 points. "When we lost our second game [of the tournament last year] to McDonogh in the semifinals, we already knew next year that we would plan on taking it all."
Smith, a 5-foot-9 guard, did everything she could to make that happen late against the defending-champion Eagles, who were within four points with less than six minutes to go.
She hit a short jumper with 3:46 left to boost the Panthers' lead to 46-40. Two minutes later, she scored in transition off a feed from Nia Clouden, then hit a short baseline jumper with 1:18 left to extend St. Frances' lead to 52-43. She added two free throws to push the lead over 10 with 1:02 left.
"Her legacy in this program is making big plays," Panthers coach Jerome Shelton said, "and she did it down the stretch. She hit some big baskets, and she's a knockdown free-throw shooter. If we're in trouble, I want her to get to the line."
In addition to the strong guard play of Smith, Clouden (10 points) and Shawnkia McCallum, the Panthers (24-3) controlled the glass with 5-11 forward Mia Davis and 6-3 center Tyanna Custis, who combined for 21 points and 20 rebounds.
"We wanted to keep them off the offensive boards and we just couldn't do it," McDonogh coach Brad Rees said. "They're too big, too strong and too aggressive, and I think that hurt us down the end. We missed some easy shots, got it down to four, missed a couple layups, missed a couple free throws, so we had them right there, but then it got away from us in the end."
Custis, who finished with eight points and 12 rebounds, had six rebounds after the Eagles (19-5) pulled within 44-40. The senior said the final came down to which team could play better together.
"They came out hard … and we had to make adjustments," Custis said. "I think we played with cohesion and we ended up getting this one because we played team basketball. It all boiled down to chemistry on the court. It all boiled down to trusting your personnel and just knowing your team."
While the Panthers did not lose to an A Conference opponent this winter, the Eagles lost only to St. Frances. This was McDonogh's fifth straight appearance in the title game; it had won three of the previous four championships.
On Sunday night, the Eagles started off with a 10-4 lead, their only two seniors — forward Andrea Robinson and guard Savannah Buchanan —– accounting for all of their points. It didn't help the Panthers to have to sit Smith with five minutes left in the first quarter after she picked up her second foul.
The Panthers, however, adjusted quickly, scoring six straight — a layup from Davis, a 16-footer from Clouden and a runner from McCallum — to tie.
McDonogh, which sometimes had three freshmen on the floor, led three times early in the second quarter, but when the lead changed for the fifth time in the quarter, the Panthers took off on an 11-0 run. Their running game and inside strength of Davis and Custis built a lead the Eagles could not erase.
The Panthers ran their lead to as high as 36-23 early in the third quarter, but the Eagles rallied. Sparked by Kolbi Green's 3-pointer to open the fourth quarter, AJ Davis scored on a nice move under the hoop, and Aleah Nelson added two free throws to cut the lead to 44-40 with 5:42 to go.
The title was the 11th overall for the Panthers, who won two Catholic League crowns before IAAM began play in 2000-2001. The Panthers won the first IAAM title and seven more over the next nine years, including an overtime win in 2007 against McDonogh.
St. Frances' victory also ended one of the most impressive individual runs for a team-sport athlete in state high school sports history, as Buchanan's string of IAAM championships stopped at eight.
Since lacrosse season of her freshman year, she has helped every team she has played on win the A Conference championship: three times in lacrosse, three times in soccer and twice in basketball. Sunday night's game was her 11th appearance in an IAAM championship game.