It beamed from the every movement the players made, from the screams of fans at the edge of the court, from the speed by which McDonogh and Roland Park raced down court when they’d collected a rebound, or steal. It fired from the fingers of Aleah Nelson as she tried to nail one 3-pointer that couldn’t have been her team’s salvation as the last buzzer sounded.
But in a test of not just skill but also will, the Reds had cleared one of their biggest obstacles. Even with so much season left to play, this pivotal victory cleared the way, from junior Mir McLean’s perspective, to the end game.
“IAAM,” she said, a grin spreading across her face. “We want to win it. We’re going to keep trying. We have the right momentum this year and the right people to do it.”
No. 2 Roland Park edged No. 3 McDonogh on Wednesday night 61-57, keeping the red-hot Reds’ six-game unbeaten streak alive.
“We knew they were coming. We handled it,” first-year coach Reds Dani Steinbach said of the Eagles. “We buckled down on defense, we got the stops we needed to and we hit the free throws. It was just the details. Came down to the details.”
McLean dominated with 21 points, eight rebounds, and four steals, followed by senior Maria Ferariu, who had 17 points and a trio of treys. To Steinbach, Ferariu’s accomplishments that don’t translate to numbers.
“Her senior leadership was fantastic,” Steinbach said. “She was getting the loose balls, pulling the rebounds. All those plays where she was helping – that stuff doesn’t show up in a stat book and that’s so valuable for us.”
Still miles away from their eventual triumph, though, Roland Park looked unsettled when the starting five hit the floor. Though they had little trouble with possession, they couldn’t connect, leaving the door open for the Eagles (3-2) to generate their own fortune.
When the ball landed in Nelson’s hands, she hurled her body into the air and slammed the ball in. It was just two points, but she’d sent a jolt through the rest of her teammates. Moments later, she’d do it again, launching the ball to teammate Jayla Oden (16 points), who bucketed it.
“It’s invaluable. Tonight was really the first time this year that [Nelson] has stepped up big when we needed her to step up big,” Eagles coach Brad Rees said. “When you get that kind of leadership on the floor, the performance out of her, we’re going to do fine.”
Nelson, who amassed a whopping 31 points by game’s end, nailed a 3-pointer before the end of the quarter. McDonogh was unable to shake the Reds, though, as Ferariu shot her first from beyond the arc.
The Eagles carried a 15-13 lead into the second frame, a lead Roland Park then erased. It was like the game was played on a stove and someone had just ticked up the gas – every footstep each player made quickened, every pass done with power.
“I’m exhausted and I was on the sidelines,” Steinbach said.
Almost all the fire was flowing from the hands of Nelson, who shot three straight 3-pointers to spur the Eagles. McLean, though, aided by Ferariu and a long ball from senior Ja’Niah Henson, kept pace with the hosts.
Unsurprisingly, the two teams went knotted up at 31 into halftime.
To the Reds, it was obvious. As tired as they were, they couldn’t let their energy wane. If they did for a second, even with 16 minutes to play, it was over.
“In the A conference, you can’t take a deep breath, you can’t take plays off. I think we learned that here and there when four people were rebounding and one person wasn’t,” Steinbach said. “It’s going to take all five for all 32 minutes.”
Roland Park struggled to make baskets in the third quarter, unable to pot their first until four minutes had already gone by. Remarkably, though, they hadn’t let McDonogh run off and were instead tied at 37 each with three minutes to go.
It came down to free throws. The Eagles were riddled with errors, at one point outnumbering their opponents in fouls 7-1. The Reds knew how important it’d be to scavenge those little points at the free-throw line, and did.
When the first field goal came, Roland Park’s offense flooded behind it. Led by Ferariu’s seven points in three minutes, the Reds surged to a 46-39 lead to head into the final quarter.
“When someone is tired, somebody else picks it up,” Ferariu said. “Of course we’re getting tired, but in the end, we just have to stay calm and still play and give everything we have.”
Exhaustion had crept up on McDonogh. Even as Nelson was able to close the gap to three points with a trey, the Eagles had trouble connecting shots when they had the chance and let the Reds maintain their lead.
The absence of senior guard Jessica Booth, who’d suffered a season-ending torn ACL, was felt.
“It changes everything. It’s not just her not being on the court; now everyone has to do something that they’re not used to doing,” Rees said. “We miss her defensively, especially because she was so flexible. And not just her on the court, but her leadership as well. We miss her, dearly.”
Both teams used as many timeout chances as they could to draw the final 30 seconds out. All McDonogh needed was two points to potentially send the game to overtime – but it didn’t come. Instead, the Reds earned free-throw chances, and with them, the game.
“Every game in the A conference is going to be a battle – no one’s gonna hand us anything – but I think what’s special about this team is from an age perspective, they’ve peaked,” Steinbach said. “We have some really strong upper-class leadership who can handle the pressure down the stretch, and that’s what it took to get the win.”