The Arundel girls basketball team was looking forward to seeing just how far it had come this season, and it had the ideal gauge going up against defending Class 4A state champion Winston Churchill in yesterday's state semifinal at UMBC.
It was apparent the No. 3 Wildcats had covered plenty of ground, but - a little less experienced and a lot smaller than their opponent - they couldn't quite find their way past the Bulldogs from Montgomery County, falling, 63-60.
The Wildcats, who finished at the top of the Anne Arundel County standings and breezed through the East region, closed out their season at 22-4.
Churchill (23-2) will return to UMBC at 3 p.m. tomorrow to defend its state crown against No. 2 Woodlawn, a 54-50 winner over Oxon Hill in yesterday's other semifinal.
The Bulldogs, who defeated Arundel, 59-52, on Dec. 28, started three players 6-feet or taller. Their starting five - all of whom were part of last year's state title team - consisted of two seniors and three juniors. The Wildcats opened with three sophomores and two seniors, with 5-foot-11 Tiffany Johnson listed as the only forward in the starting lineup.
"They had the experience, so they kind of knew what they were doing," said Wildcats sophomore guard Alex McGuire, who finished with 15 points and eight rebounds. "It was the first time [in the state semifinals] for most of us. We thought we gave it a good effort. We just didn't come up with it. We're definitely going to be back."
Second, third and fourth scoring chances came frequently for the Bulldogs, and in the closing minutes of a tight game, their experience showed up.
Senior guard Alis Freeman, headed for Towson University, took over segments of the game to finish with 21 points. Junior center Chloe Evans added 15 and did most of the damage on the boards.
When Freeman easily handled the Wildcats' relentless press and found Evans alone under the basket for an easy basket, it gave the Bulldogs a 63-60 lead with one minute left, and that's how it stayed.
"We were a little too urgent at times we didn't need to be. It's growing pains, but good growing pains," said Arundel coach Lee Rogers.
The Wildcats appeared to be nervous going in, but they didn't panic, even when the Bulldogs went on a 15-0 run to start the second quarter to build a 29-18 lead.
Instead, the Wildcats chipped away, with senior guard Amanda Hernandez (21 points) hitting free throws, a jumper and finishing off a feed from senior Jessie Collins. When sophomore guard Ana Baker completed a driving layup for her second buzzer-beater of the half, the Bulldogs' lead was only 32-29.
Arundel had three leads in the fourth quarter, the last coming after a jumper from Hernandez that made it 56-55 with 4:48 left, but the Wildcats would only get a basket from McGuire and two free throws from Collins the rest of the way.
WC -- Freeman 21, Hatten 11, Evans 15, Adams 6, Phillips 8, Bernstein 2. Totals 25 8-13 63. A- Hernandez 21, McGuire 15, Baker 14, Collins 6, Johnson 4. Totals 22 16-24 60. Half: WC, 32-29.