For the No. 1 Mount Saint Joseph basketball team, Friday’s first half against visiting Mount Carmel was a mighty struggle on offense. At halftime, the scoreboard showed a measly 13 points for the home team.
But the defending Baltimore Catholic League and Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association A Conference champions have handled adversity plenty of times in the past.
Still trailing by eight points against the No. 5 Cougars midway through the fourth quarter, the Gaels responded with timely makes on offense, clutch defensive stops and enough free throws in the final minute to pull out a 55-51 win in Irvington.
Senior guard Ace Valentine scored a game-high 21 points as Mount Saint Joseph (21-3) improved to 7-1 in the BCL and 8-0 in the MIAA A Red Division. Mount Carmel, led by a 14-point performance from guard Mario Tatum, fell to 10-9 overall, 2-6 in the BCL and 2-4 in the MIAA.
The Gaels were not at their best but were still able to pull out an important win against a determined foe.
“That’s what good teams do, championship teams,” said 31-year coach Pat Clatchey, who earlier this week passed former Annapolis coach and fellow Mount Saint Joseph alum John Brady for the fourth-most victories (773-258) in Maryland high school boys basketball history. “We get everybody’s best shot and I think sometimes with our guys we got to figure out what our best shot is. I’m glad we won. I think it showed we have some resilience and grit.”
The Gaels’ first-half defense kept the game close as the Cougars only led 19-13 at the break. The home team came out of the locker room inspired, scoring on its first three possessions of the third quarter with a basket from senior forward Amani Hansberry (14 points) providing a 20-19 lead.
But the Cougars, trailing 35-32 after three, were persistent and started the fourth with a 15-4 run behind consecutive 3-pointers from Allen Mardi and Drew Dixon (10 points) to build a 45-37 advantage with 4:27 to play.
The Gaels made sure to have the last word at both ends behind Valentine, who ended the Cougars’ run with a jumper and later added a key 3-pointer. With Mount Saint Joseph still trailing 49-46 with 2:01 to play, Hansberry made two free throws before giving the Gaels the lead for good, 50-49, with a jumper in the paint at the 1:03 mark.
With the Gaels leading 54-51 with 10 seconds to play, Dixon’s off-balance 3-point try at the top of the circle missed the mark. Valentine made one of two free throws with two seconds left to seal the win.
“We know Mount Carmel is always going to be a tough game, so this is what we work for at practice,” Valentine said. “When we have tough games like this, we know we got to stick it out, stay focused on us and do what we got to do to win the game. That’s what we did tonight.”
Mount Carmel coach Trevor Quinn was pleased with the level of competitiveness he got from his Cougars, who were on the verge of a potentially season-altering win. In the closing quarter, he saw things differently than the referees. The Gaels got to the free-throw line 10 times in the frame, while his Cougars only made one trip on their first possession.
Asked what the difference was down the stretch, Quinn replied: “The politically correct answer would be they made more plays than we did. But they got seven straight foul calls — seven consecutive foul calls against us without them getting called for anything. We were attacking the basket. We have just as big kids, same exact thing. So that was a big difference — they got to the free-throw line and we didn’t.”
Both teams return to the court Saturday to play in the R1A Classic at Harford Community College. Mount Carmel will play New Jersey’s The Patrick School at 2:45 p.m. with Mount Saint Joseph taking on D.C.-based Jackson-Reed at 6:15.
MC — Dixon 10, Tatum 14, Kalu 4, Reid 10, Mordi 5, Scott 6, Cole 2. Totals: 20 6-7 51
MSJ — Valentine 21, Abrams 8, Farrell 8, Clark 4, Hansberry 14. Totals: 18 14-20 55
Half: MC, 19-13