Junior Will Thomas and senior Anthony Fair dominated inside to carry No. 3 Mount St. Joseph to a thrilling, 58-55 victory over No. 10 St. Frances in a Baltimore Catholic League tournament semifinal last night at Goucher College.
The top-seeded Gaels escaped with the win in a game that featured seven ties and no lead larger than seven points - which Mount St. Joseph held three times in the last five minutes.
Defending champion and No. 8 Archbishop Spalding will be the Gaels' opponent in tonight's championship game at Goucher. Mount St. Joseph (27-3) knocked off the Cavaliers twice in the regular season and a third time would give the Irvington school its first title in the 32-year history of the tournament.
Mount St. Joseph has played in the final four times, the last in 1998, when it lost to Towson Catholic.
Thomas, a 6-foot-7 center/forward, had the kind of game last night that earned him the regular-season Jerry Savage Player of the Year award. Thomas had game-high totals of 21 points, 13 rebounds and three blocked shots.
"I think we all came out with more energy tonight and stepped it up after that [snow] layoff," said Thomas. "And our sophomore point guard, Brian Johnson, did a great job getting me and Anthony the ball."
When the Panthers (20-7), who split with the Gaels in the regular season, doubled down on Thomas, Fair was the answer. Either Thomas or Johnson kicked it out to Fair.
"They were concentrating on Will, and I came up and knew I had that shot," said the 6-6 Fair, who hit three short jumpers in the second half and drew praise from opposing coach William Wells.
Fair scored 11 of his 13 points in the second half and grabbed five rebounds and blocked a shot.
"Thomas is tough, but that No. 50 [Fair] made some big baskets for them," said Wells, whose team was led by Darnell Harris' 16 points.
Gaels coach Pat Clatchey has been impressed with Harris all season, saying the Panthers junior reminds him of Juan Dixon when the former Terp and current Washington Wizard was at Calvert Hall.
"Harris and a couple of their guys made some unbelievable shots," Clatchey said. "I was telling our guys that they were playing great defense, but they were just making the shots."
On three occasions, St. Frances overcame seven-point deficits in the final moments, with Harris or Demetrick Walker scoring on runners or long jumpers.
"I was pleased with the way our young team [seven players return] came back," said Wells.
Gordon Chase, a 6-4 junior who had 12 points and nine rebounds, scored on a put-back with 25 seconds remaining that got the Panthers within 54-52. Free throws by Thomas and Kyle O'Connor, however, made sure they would get no closer.
The Gaels made 19 of 25 free throws for the game. Both teams shot well from the field -Mount St. Joseph 40 percent (19-for-48), and St. Frances 39 percent (22-for-56).