For the second year in a row, the Catonsville High girls basketball team has won 23 games, but the Comets need one more if they are going to go to the Class 4A state tournament's final four for the first time since 2003.
The Comets (23-2) will play at Howard High on Friday, March 3 at 6:30 p.m. for the Class 4A North Region title.
Howard advanced with a 74-51 victory over Western, of Baltimore City.
The host Comets advanced by defeating a feisty Bel Air squad, 53-42, on Wednesday night.
Against Bel Air, Jasmine Dickey scored 15 of her game-high 24 points in the fourth quarter to lead the Comets.
Jen Gast (12 points), Jameila Barrett and Gabby Douglas (eight each) also contributed for the Comets.
Bel Air was led by Liz Hillman (10 points) and OC Murphy (nine).
Both defenses were stellar and both offenses went into scoring droughts in the first half.
Catonsville’s defense forced 11 Bel Air turnovers in the first quarter and the Comets led 13-9. Gast scored seven points in the quarter, while grabbing three rebounds and getting three steals.
Murphy had four points to lead the Bobcats in the opening stanza.
Two fouls on Dickey sent her to the bench with 4:51 left in the first quarter and the Comets leading 10-4.
With starters Barrett and Stashia Daniels playing sick, Catonsville coach Mike Mohler went to his bench early with Amber Lally, Aakilah Barrett and Maddie McLean.
“Barrett and Daniels were not at 100 percent and we went with them as long as they said they could go, and that’s why we were subbing a lot early to try and get some quality minutes out of some kids,” Mohler said.
The Comets scored only six points in the second quarter, but the Bobcats struggled from the field and only scored five and trailed 19-14 at the half.
Bel Air didn’t commit any turnovers in the second quarter after the Comets took off their press that created havoc in the first quarter.
“We’ve seen these guys play before. I was here last year, so we know how fast it’s going to be, but it’s hard to simulate this kind of thing in a practice,” Shelton said. “Yesterday at practice, we brought our boys varsity team out just so we could simulate the speed and the length that this team has.”
Catonsville expanded its lead to eight, 33-25, in the third quarter thanks to hard work on the boards.
Barrett had six offensive rebounds in the first four minutes of the quarter and eight overall.
“When our coach writes on the list in the locker room, our top things to do are defense and rebounding, we really put in effort rebounding because you are limiting the other team’s possessions which gives you more to execute,” Barrett said.
Barrett added a pair of assists in the quarter, including a big one to Douglas, who canned a trey with 4:22 left to give the Comets a 26-16 lead.
A layup by Douglas expanded the lead to 33-22 with 39 seconds left in the quarter, but a three-pointer by Grace Wheland, after a pass by Hillman, cut the deficit to eight with seven seconds left in the quarter.
Bel Air coach Calvin Shelton wasn’t surprised his team rallied after the rough start.
“We know we have outstanding guard play and our kids have all kinds of heart, so we knew it was just a matter of adjusting to what was going to happen and settling in,” Skelton said.
Mohler was also aware of the Bobcats’ strong backcourt.
“Bel Air did a really good job," Mohler said. "They had three really good guards. We tell the kids all the time, I don’t care what league you are in, good guards can beat you in any game.”
After a Douglas free throw gave the Comets a 34-25 lead early in the third quarter, Bel Air’s Murphy hit a trey with 7:16 left and the Comets led 34-28.
Barrett’s fast break bucket was answered by a layup from Hillman and the lead was 36-30 with 5:29 left, before Gast’s putback made it 38-30 with 5:12 remaining.
That’s when Dickey went to work, scoring 15 straight points to end the game.
“We talked about executing in crunch time. You’ve got to execute in crunch time,” Mohler said.
Skelton expected Dickey to produce.
“If you are going to be Superman, you are supposed to come through in moments like that and that’s exactly what she [Dickey] did,” Skelton said. "To her credit, if you want the top billing and all that, you’ve got to perform when it counts and that is exactly what she did. We didn’t have an answer for it. I give credit to that team. That’s a great team over there.”
His fondness for his own team was evident.
“I’ve been the coach here at Bel Air for 13 years and I’ve never been more proud of a group than I am of this group and this moment,” said Skelton, whose squad won 10 of its last 13 and graduates only one senior starter [Murphy].
But he won’t see three of his key players on the basketball court until next November.
Hillman is committed to play lacrosse at the University of North Carolina, Wheland will play lacrosse at Cincinnati and Henry plans to play lacrosse at Michigan.
“The athleticism is there and they won’t pick up a ball again until next season,” Skelton said.
Meanwhile, Barrett can’t wait to get to basketball practice at Catonsville.
“We need to pick up the intensity on defense and we really want to get out there and limit possessions, that’s the biggest thing,” Barrett said. “We’ve got to execute on offense. We had our struggles on offense today, but next game we plan to get better.”
Mohler, whose Comets will play in the regional championship game for the fourth straight year, knows the importance of any playoff victory.
“Like they say in all the tournaments, survive and advance, and sometimes you win one where you didn’t play your best, but you survive and that’s what happened tonight,” Mohler said.