Top-ranked St. Frances clinched its second straight Catholic League championship with a 76-66 victory over Cardinal Gibbons at the University of Baltimore last night.
The Panthers (24-4 overall and 10-1 in the league) couldn't pull away from the Crusaders in the final quarter and led by only 67-64 with 58 seconds remaining.
But an offensive rebound and basket by Mark Karcher, who led the Panthers with 24 points, opened a five-point lead and five free throws over the next 30 seconds spelled defeat for the Crusaders.
"We expected a tough game from Gibbons," said Panthers coach William Wells. "They always play us tough. They match up with us real well."
Sophomore center Shawn Hampton scored 19 for St. Frances and Alfonso Jones added 15. Josh Davalli led the Crusaders (21-11, 5-7) with 20 points and Keith Phoebus added 16 before fouling out during the final minute.
But the big man was Karcher, as it has been for most of his three seasons at St. Frances. When a big basket is needed he somehow delivers.
"It feels good to win back-to-back championships," he said. "Since I've been here we've always tried to win it for the seniors and we did it, but we still want to win the tournament and get the Alhambra Tournament, too."
Gibbons started the game by missing its first five shots from the field and trailed throughout the first quarter, until a spin move in the lane and a layup by Davalli tied the score at 15 at the buzzer.
The Crusaders moved on top in the second quarter on two free throws and a three-pointer by James Urban. But the lead changed seven times after that, with the Panthers moving ahead on two baskets by Jones that put St. Frances ahead 36-32 at intermission.
Jones keyed a 14-7 run in the first four minutes of the second half for a 50-39 lead and the Crusdaders couldn't get closer than three points after that.
They did pull to with 60-56 after two free throws by Davalli with 3:02 left to play. But Karcher and the Panthers wouldn't let up at the other end, pulling down four offensive rebounds before Karcher made a driving layup and was fouled.
The three-point play provided a 63-56 lead but Phoebus quickly hit a three-pointer at the other end. Then after Darryl Dantzler's follow-up basket gave the Panthers a six-point lead, Vernon Collins hit a 15-foot jumper for the Crusaders and a free throw by Davalli made it 65-62 with 1:19 to play. But that was as close as it got.
The Panthers close out the regular season at home Sunday against Loyola and then will wait for the second round of the Catholic League Tournament, which begins at Goucher College on Friday and resumes on March 3 and 4.