The look on McDonogh guard Tiersa Winder's face mixed joy with a little bit of awe after the No. 2 Eagles defeated Seton Keough, 60-40, Thursday night to earn a berth in the Interscholastic Athletic Association of Maryland A Conference girls basketball final.
The Eagles (25-1) haven't been to a championship game since 2007 and they haven't won one since 1999, but their semifinal victory sends them into Saturday's 5 p.m. title game at UMBC against defending champion and No. 5 Archbishop Spalding.
"It's such a great feeling," said Winder, whose team has won 23 straight games and has not lost to an A Conference opponent this season. "I am truly proud of my team. We came in with full confidence and pushed hard to win all of these games. We came out and we did it. It's a great accomplishment to get to the championship."
In typical fashion, the Eagles wore down their opponent with aggressive defense. Their relentlessness fueled a few early offensive spurts that led to a 34-17 advantage just over a minute before halftime.
Eagles coach Brad Rees said any player can provide the initial offensive energy, and Thursday it came from stellar freshman point guard Danielle Edwards, who hit two 3-pointers to open the game and finished with 19 points. Winder finished with 10 points, and sophomore forward Brianna Jacobs came off the bench with a big post game, scoring 16 points and grabbing six rebounds.
In Tuesday's quarterfinal, the Gators (13-13) upset No. 10 Roland Park, but they were overmatched against McDonogh, hitting just 13 of 34 shots and going 0-for-7 in the fourth quarter. The Eagles, on the other hand, shot 50 percent from the field.
Seton Keough scored the last four points of the first half, and Kahla McCormick hit two 3-pointers early in the second half to cut McDonogh's lead to 36-27, but the Eagles answered with an eight-point run. After that, the Gators never got closer than within 11.
"They hustled. They play hard every single minute," Winder said of the Gators. "We just knew we had to come out and play even harder to be able to accomplish our goal and go to the championship and we did. We played as hard as we could."
Although the Gators endured a huge roster turnover after falling to Spalding in last year's title game, their players were bitterly disappointed by the loss. First-year coach Jody Powell tried to provide some perspective.
"We've had a lot of adversity this year just with a new coaching staff, a new system, new players, so to get to this game is amazing," Powell said. "Coach Brad told me, 'We didn't expect you guys to win any games,' so I've got to feel good about that. I'm very encouraged for our future, but it's hard to translate that to my players because they hurt so much right now."
Aaliyah "Stixz" Wilson led the Gators with 12 points and McCormick, one of only three seniors on the roster, added 11.
SK—Wilson 12, D.Davis 1, Booker 5, M.Davis 5, McCormick 11, Veney 2, Zeps 4. Totals 13 11-21 40.
M—Kobb 4, Rees 4, Edwards 19, Cummings 3, Jacobs 16, Winder 10, Wynn 4. Totals 24 9-14 60. Half: M, 34-21.
Past A Conference champions
2011 Archbishop Spalding def. Seton Keough 53-48
2010 St. Frances def. Archbishop Spalding, 60-53
2009 Seton Keough def. St. Frances, 58-38
2008 St. Frances def. Seton Keough, 43-39 OT
2007 St. Frances def. McDonogh, 68-63 OT
2006 St. Frances def. Seton Keough 42-31
2005 St. Frances def. IND, 68-52
2004 St. Frances def. Roland Park 45-32
2003 St. Frances def. IND, 48-32
2002 Archbishop Spalding def. Seton Keough, 45-42
2001 St. Frances def. Seton Keough, 52-37
2000 Seton Keough def. Roland Park, 45-29