Most of the area's private school girls basketball coaches contend that when No. 2 St. Frances is at its best, nobody can beat it. Last night, in the Interscholastic Athletic Association of Maryland A Conference championship, the Panthers were at their best.
The Panthers' switching defenses demolished No. 6 Roland Park's offensive strategy, helping St. Frances run up a 15-point first-quarter lead en route to a 45-32 victory and its second straight A Conference championship before about 800 fans at Villa Julie College.
Switching from a zone press to man-to-man and back, the Panthers (24-3) forced seven turnovers and limited the Reds (22-6) to five shots in racing to a 16-1 lead.
"The last three games we've played, our defense has been outstanding," said Panthers coach Jerome Shelton. "We've played the kind of defense I'm used to seeing us playing - good ball pressure, good help, rebounding and getting out in transition. We were really doing a good job."
The Panthers' defense forced 23 Reds turnovers - 15 in the first half. That was two more turnovers than they had shots by halftime. The Reds only hit seven field goals, and more than half of their points - 18 - came from the free-throw line. After the Panthers' initial run, the Reds never got closer than nine.
"Today they played like the best team in the league, and they are," said Reds coach Scott Buckley, whose team split with the Panthers in the regular season. "If they come to play, it's scary."
Angel McCoughtry, last season's All-Metro Player of the Year, scored six of her 20 points in the early run and said she was surprised to get such a big early lead against the Reds.
"When it's the championship game, you don't expect to get up by that much. You expect it to be close the whole game. When we got up 16-1, that really gave us confidence. We got kind of comfortable, and we had to realize it wasn't over," said McCoughtry, a 6-foot-1 forward who also had nine rebounds and two blocks.
In the second quarter, the Reds cut the lead to 16-6 on two free throws each from Dani Kell and Audie Fugett and another from Breyana Hall, but nothing could make up for the Reds going through the first 13 minutes without a field goal.
It didn't help the Reds to play much of the first half without point guard Shannon Burke, who picked up her second foul in the first three minutes and her third two minutes into the second quarter. Still, Kell, a senior All-Metro guard, said the Panthers' past experience in the title game was a huge factor.
"They've been in this position before and we haven't," said Kell, who led the Reds with 10 points. "Coach told us not to get caught up in all the hoopla, but I think unfortunately we did a little bit."
For the Panthers, who have now won three titles in four years, the winning feeling surpassed that of the previous title games. The Panthers overcame a few internal problems and survived the pressure of being heavy favorites to repeat.
"Our goal for this year was 'One team, one dream,'" said senior guard Nija Bastfield, the only player other than McCoughtry to be on all three championship teams. "All of us had to play together and believe in one another. We finally came together toward the end, and I'm glad we did."