St. Frances' upset win over McDonogh in Wednesday night's No. 1 vs. No. 2 girls basketball showdown meant twice as much to the host Panthers and coach Jerome Shelton.
Not only did the No. 2 Panthers defeat the top-ranked and defending champion Eagles, 72-46, to remain the only team unbeaten in the Interscholastic Athletic Association of Maryland A Conference, but they also presented Shelton with his 500th career victory.
There was no big celebration after the game and Shelton was more pleased with the win that moved his team to the top of the A Conference standings. His players, however, were happy for their coach.
"It feels good to be a part of it. He's been coaching for a long time and I know this win was a big part of him, so it feels good to be a part of his 500th win," said senior guard Tyeisha Smith, who led the Panthers with 27 points.
Smith and junior forward Mia Davis, who added 17 points and 13 rebounds, said Shelton didn't mention the milestone before the game, but they knew about it.
"He don't say too much," Smith said.
"But he's happy on the inside," added Davis.
Shelton, in his 25th season at St. Frances, becomes the fourth coach in Baltimore area girls basketball history to reach the 500-win milestone. He joins former North Harford coach Lin James (608 wins), former Southern coach Linda Kilpatrick (503) and River Hill coach Teresa Waters (501), who earned her 500th on Dec. 29.
"I'm grateful to God for it," Shelton said. "I've had a lot of good players and they made this possible so it's bigger than me. … It's about the program, so I told this group that they have this distinction but there are a lot of players who played here to get me to this point, to get the program to the point where it's very well established, nationally known. It's a great honor to be at the helm."
Said McDonogh coach Brad Rees: "I told him I was on the wrong end of that one, but I was happy to be here to see his 500th because the program they have had here has been just phenomenal over the years with what he and this program have done, so kudos to him for 500."
Shelton has guided the Panthers to eight A Conference titles. His team would like nothing more than to add another banner to the gym rafters and they played like it Wednesday night.
The Eagles, winners of three A Conference titles in the past four years, were already young thanks to a couple of key injuries and when their leaders, senior forward Andrea Robinson and sophomore guard Taleah Dixon, got into early foul trouble, they had four freshmen and a sophomore on the floor at one time.
Early on, McDonogh nearly closed a couple of gaps, cutting an 8-2 Panthers lead to 8-7 and cutting a 15-7 lead to 15-11 when freshman forward AJ Davis closed out the first quarter with back-to-back follow shots.
But Robinson and Dixon, who led the Eagles with 13 points, picked up their second fouls within 23 seconds. So with 2:15 to go in the opening quarter, both were on the bench, staying there until the middle of the second quarter.
By then, the more experienced Panthers (17-3, 7-0 conference) had run their lead to 25-12 after Shawnkia McCallum hit a runner and added a free throw and Davis sank a couple of free throws just over three minutes into the second quarter.
McDonogh (14-3, 7-1) trimmed the lead to nine, but the Panthers used their quickness and dominance on the glass to run the lead to 35-12 at the half and 45-26 midway through the third quarter.
"We knew this was going to be a big game with both of us undefeated in the conference," Smith said. "With two undefeated teams, well-coached … we had to come out and play hard."
The Panthers had beaten McDonogh just once in their past eight meetings, a one-point win last February. The Eagles have beaten St. Frances in the past two A Conference tournament semifinal rounds.
Wednesday's win "kind of re-establishes us in terms of our kind of longstanding success, to get back to the No. 1 spot," Shelton said. "McDonogh's been very competitive over the last four years and they're still competitive now. It's just good for us to get back to where we think we should be."
The two meet again on Feb. 1 at McDonogh.
Shelton, a New Jersey native, helped coach the Panthers boys his first two years as a history teacher at the East Baltimore Catholic school before taking over the girls program in 1990. He's had just three losing seasons and the Panthers' eight IAAM A Conference championships are more than twice as many as any other team. They won their last title in 2009-10 and also won two Catholic League championships before the league merged into the IAAM in 1999.
Giving a lot of credit to those around him, Shelton cited not just his players over the years, but his assistant coaches — including this year's staff, Johnny Mack, Mike Dukes and Nytearia Burrell — his pastor Dr. Dwayne C. Dedna and former Coppin State women's coach Douglas Robertson, who taught him how to run practices and how to establish good relationships with his players.
"He encouraged me to go to clinics and study up on the game, so I could be a better coach and really be able to handle the quality of student-athletes I was getting in my program," Shelton said, "because when you get better players, you've got to become a better coach. You have to be able to teach those better players. They have an appetite that is tremendous for learning. You want to make sure you can accommodate that."
2 St. Frances 72, 1 McDonogh 46
M—Robinson 7, Dixon 13, Nelson 9, Liles 2, Davis 7, Booth 4, Buchanan 4. Totals 18 7-16 46.
SF—Davis 17, Smith 27, McCallum 5, Clouden 5, Custis 8, Carroll 2, Moore 2, Chambers 3, Myles 3. Totals 27 15-27 72. Half: SF, 35-21.