Everything has gone perfectly for McDonogh's girls basketball team in the Interscholastic Athletic Association of Maryland A Conference this winter. The No. 1 Eagles are 16-0 against conference competition and headed to the championship game against No. 3 Roland Park.
The Reds, seeded second behind the Eagles, are 14-2 in conference play, with both losses to McDonogh. In Saturday's semifinal, the Reds edged No. 5 St. Vincent Pallotti, 50-46, to earn a third shot at McDonogh, which dismissed No. 6 St. Frances, 55-47, in the other semifinal.
They will tip off for the title at 5 p.m. Monday at Archbishop Spalding.
It's an old adage, but it really is hard to beat a good team three times — especially in a conference this tough. The top five teams in the conference, including Seton Keough, are ranked in the top 12 of The Baltimore Sun's Top 15 and, of course, all of the semifinalists are ranked in the top 6.
"It's always tough when you have to play them a third time, and the last time was a real battle down there" at Roland Park, Eagles coach Brad Rees said. "It's just tough for us being the position we're in when we've got everything to lose. That's something we've talked about a lot. It's a major accomplishment to go through our conference undefeated."
In their two regular-season meetings, the Eagles won, 48-41, on Dec. 11 and 56-52 on Jan. 15. In both cases, the Eagles proved much better at finishing off the game, an edge they've had on a lot of opponents this season.
Reds coach Scott Buckley said the first meeting was so early in the season — just their second game — that his team wasn't ready to play an opponent of that caliber. The Reds turned the ball over 22 times and trailed by 12 halfway through the third quarter. Still, they cut the lead to four with 15.8 seconds left in the game.
The second time around was much closer. The Reds had a four-point lead midway through the half, and the game was tied at 52 before McDonogh forward Brianna Jacobs made two free throws with 1:16 to go, then hit a layup after Dajah Logan grabbed an offensive rebound and fed her teammate.
"That second game, I thought we played great, we just couldn't close it out," Buckley said Sunday. "They've had some big-game experience. We played in some big tournaments this year trying to get big-game experience. Tomorrow, though, it's a little bit of a different thing to have championship experience. They have championship experience and we don't, so we'll see how that plays out."
The Reds haven't won a basketball title since 1990, the second of back-to-back championships in the Association of Independent Schools, which in 1999 merged with the Catholic League to form the IAAM.
McDonogh, however, won two years ago and has been in the final three straight years. The Eagles beat Archbishop Spalding in the 2012 final, 46-44, after rallying from 22 points down just before the half. The Cavaliers got their revenge last year, taking a 55-46 victory in the title game.
When the Eagles and the Reds meet Sunday, there won't be many secrets. The teams have a lot in common. They even have cousins on opposing sides: McDonogh point guard Danielle Edwards and Reds' forward Lindsey Edwards.
"I feel like it's a great matchup for us," Buckley said, "and I think they feel the same way for them. Part of it is our kids really know each other a lot from playing together or playing against each other. But also, I think our strength is our guard play and their strength is their guard play. Overall, we look to do a lot of the same things. Our offense is very similar to their offense, so we're pretty close to mirror images."
Both teams also have a lot of versatile players. Most of their guards can rebound and most of their forwards can play on the perimeter.
The Eagles' game starts with 5-foot-7 junior ball handler Danielle Edwards, a two-time All-Metro pick and a first-team selection last season. Jacobs, a 5-9 senior forward who plays taller, is key for them on the boards while Logan, a 5-11 All-Metro second-team guard, has range on her jump shot and the size to battle inside. In the semifinal, Edwards and Logan scored 15 each and Jacobs had 14.
Guard Maya Wynn, a 5-11 senior, has exceptional range, hitting a very long 3-pointer in the semifinal. Center Jameria Johnson, a 6-2 junior, can be a tough matchup inside.
Lindsey Edwards, a 5-10 junior and All-Metro second-team forward who had 16 points in the semifinal, leads an exceptionally balanced Reds lineup. At 6-1, junior forward Michala Clay is tough on the boards and can also hit the 3-pointer. Three sophomores — 5-10 point guard Jaia Alexander, 6-foot forward Bailey Andrews and 5-10 guard Ryan Holder — could lead the team on any given day.
Both teams also have a couple of key wild cards off the bench.
For the Reds, their only senior Tatyana Carter, a 5-11 senior, can be a game changer. She played a key role in keeping the Eagles from running away with the first meeting in December, and without her defensive effort against stellar Pallotti forward Beverly Ogunride in the semifinal, the Reds might not be in the final. The Reds also have 5-9 freshman guard Jeydah Johnson, a fearless 3-point ace.
The Eagles get key minutes from 6-foot sophomore forward Andrea Robinson, who hit three of four free throws in the last two-and-a-half minutes of the semifinal to help keep St. Frances at bay. Guard Lilli Robb, a 5-7 senior, can be a hot perimeter shooter off the bench.
As with the rest of the season, the title game figures to be a battle to the wire. Anything, or anyone, could make the difference.
Both coaches took their teams to out-of-town tournament to prepare them for the playoffs, losing some games but also scoring some big wins. McDonogh (25-2) beat Oregon City, Ore., en route to winning a tough division of the Diamond State Classic holiday tournament in Wilmington, Del.
Roland Park (20-6) lost a few more games on the road but gained valuable experience, playing tough competition, including Poly, which nipped the Reds, 53-49, to take over the No. 2 ranking.
"We play the top six or seven teams in the area, and Roland Park does the same thing," Rees said. "And we're going outside the [conference] schedule where we're playing national-caliber teams in between games. We're 25-2 now, and if I look at those wins, there are some good wins in there. It's just hard to, every day, come out and play at that level. It's just a grind. I don't think people really realize what's that like."
Both teams have played 12 games against teams ranked in The Sun's Top 15. On Monday, 13 will be a lucky number for one of them.