McDonogh girls basketball coach Brad Rees always said two of the Eagles’ worst matchups were St. Frances point guard Nia Clouden and forward Angel Reese.
When Reese opened Sunday night’s Interscholastic Athletic Association of Maryland A Conference championship with back-to-back baskets and Clouden followed with a 3-pointer, the No. 2 Eagles were in trouble right away.
The No. 1 Panthers used that early spark to power a 69-51 over McDonogh for their third straight A Conference championship and their 11th overall at Stevenson.
Clouden, who is headed to Michigan State, and Reese combined for 42 points as St. Frances ran its lead as high as 25 in the third quarter.
“It really hasn’t hit me yet,” said Clouden, who finished with 23 points, seven rebounds, three assist and two steals. “I know we won and it’s my third one. It feels good to win senior year and close out my high school career with a championship.”
The Panthers (21-4) have beaten McDonogh for all three titles and haven’t lost an A Conference game in three years. Once St. Frances got rolling in the early minutes, the Eagles (21-5) seemed to have no answer.
“We just never had any fire,” Rees said. “You can’t dig a hole like that against that good a team. You can’t show up without some level of fight coming out to start the game.”
The Panthers, who also got 13 points from Savawn Hughes, kept pushing the lead until it reached 25 on one of Clouden’s five 3-pointers with 3:06 left in the third quarter. An 11-point run built the lead to 44-20 before McDonogh’s Aleah Nelson stopped the momentum briefly with a layup. Clouden answered with the 3-pointer for a 47-22 St. Frances lead.
McDonogh, led by 14 points from Taleah Dixon, had a few mini-runs but never sustained the momentum to dent the Panthers’ lead much, managing only to pull within 13.
The regular-season games had been much closer between the two with the Panthers winning, 68-54 and 56-46. Each time, they had to pull away late from a defensive-oriented Eagles team that managed very little of its usual transition game Sunday night.
Panthers coach Jerome Shelton liked the way his offense played, especially hitting its first four shots — two inside from 6-foot-3 Reese, who had 19 points, 12 rebounds and three assists, and Clouden with two 3-pointers. Two of those baskets came off steals by Reese and Delicia Pinnick.
“We got off to a very good start offensively and that carried over to our defense,” Shelton said. “Hitting those big shots early got us really in a good rhythm offensively and defensively and then, of course, Angel just complementing Nia around the basket and on the perimeter with her rebounding, ballhandling and play-making — all of that allowed us to get off to a good start.”
The Panthers, ranked No. 19 in MaxPreps Xcellent 25, have won almost three times as many championships as any other A Conference team in the 19 years since the A Conference was formed, including six in a row from 2003 to 2008. McDonogh, which has been in seven straight title games, won three from 2012 to 2015. Archbishop Spalding also has three and Seton Keough, two.
After losing some significant talent — including All-Metro Player of the Year Mia Davis — to graduation, the Panthers worked through early growing pains against a tough schedule. Three of their four losses were to teams ranked above them in the Xcellent 25 — No. 12 Princess Anne, Va., No. 15 Baldwin, N.Y., and No. 17 Winter Haven, Fla. Their other loss was to Bishop McNamara in the second game of the season.
Reese, an All-Metro first-team selection last season along with Clouden, said the early schedule helped the Panthers grow with three new starters in the lineup.
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“Our chemistry probably wasn’t the best in the beginning,” Reese said, “but right now, our chemistry’s the best. It’s like we’ve been together for two, three years. We had to step up our defense. We lost most of our games early in the beginning of the season because of our defense, so we definitely had to step that up. That’s mostly won most of our games — defense and rebounding.”
The Panthers have won 13 straight games since the loss to Baldwin at the Rose Classic Super Jam on Jan. 13. They had a wake-up call against No. 3 Roland Park on Jan. 17, pulling out a 53-50 victory.
Both teams, along with B Conference teams Institute of Notre Dame and Mount Carmel, will continue their seasons at the Bishop Walsh Girls Invitational Tournament on March 1-3 in Cumberland. Last year, St. Frances defeated McDonogh in the championship game. In 2016, the Eagles pulled the upset over the Panthers in the third-place game.