With her team's shots not falling for much of the first half yesterday against C. Milton Wright, Aberdeen girls basketball coach Brandi Barnes delivered a simple halftime message.
"Our coach just told us to persevere, suck it up and work harder," said Eagles senior forward Rudina Johnson. "We were being clumsy with the ball and we just had to gather ourselves and find a way to win."
The Eagles found that way as a spirited defensive effort and a domination of the backboards helped deliver a 41-27 victory over the host Mustangs.
With both teams struggling to make shots in the game pitting two of the preseason favorites of the Upper Chesapeake Bay Athletic Conference Chesapeake Division, the result came down to the little things - and the Eagles did them but the Mustangs didn't.
Aberdeen (8-2, 1-1) out-rebounded C. Milton Wright 49-28. The Mustangs (8-2, 2-2) also shot just 9-for-51 from the field.
"None of us came ready to play and they were," said Mustangs coach Nicole Nimmo. "We need to box out. They had 20-something offensive rebounds. You can't win games when you get out-rebounded like that."
The Mustangs also didn't have much of an answer for Johnson, the athletic 5-foot-8 forward who has been one of the driving forces behind the Eagles' two straight state semifinal appearances.
Johnson started slow but finished with 18 points on 9-for-20 shooting, 16 rebounds and three blocks.
The Eagles' second scoring option, senior point guard Tomeka McDonald, struggled from the field, going just 1-for-13, but found other ways to hurt C. Milton Wright.
McDonald had seven assists, five rebounds and seven steals to go along with her four points. The Eagles also got nine points and five rebounds from freshman Shanelle Shivers.
"I knew I wasn't hitting shots, so I just had to play defense and pass the ball," said McDonald. "That's all you can do."
Aberdeen led nearly the whole way, taking a 28-18 lead late in the fourth quarter after Johnson put back her own miss.
But the Mustangs, who got 10 points from sophomore guard Lauren Jasper and seven from junior center Janine Luber, cut the Eagles' lead to 28-21 on Jenna Price's second three- pointer of the night.
After Jasper further cut into Aberdeen's lead, converting a driving layup to make it 31-25 with 3:40 to play, the Eagles closed the game on a 10-2 run.
Included in that spurt were three points each from Shivers and junior Nalani Russell (four points, nine rebounds) and two each from Rudina Johnson and Jacelyn Johnson.
"It was a good win," said Barnes, whose team was coming off a surprising loss to division foe Rising Sun of Cecil County last week. "I didn't feel like we played to the best of our abilities, but we gutted it out and that's what counts."