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Spurt before half lifts No. 2 McDonogh over No. 3 Roland Park, 73-69, in IAAM 'A' basketball semi

McDonogh's Jessica Booth and Taleah Dixon talk about the Eagles' win over Roland Park in the IAAM A Conference semifinal. (Katherine Dunn, Baltimore Sun video)

To see what drives McDonogh’s No. 2 girls basketball team, look no further than the final 23 seconds of the first half Thursday night against Roland Park in the Interscholastic Athletic Association of Maryland A Conference semifinals.

The Eagles had two quick steals that turned into five points and their first lead of the game en route to a 73-69 victory.

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Taleah Dixon had a steal in the paint and hit a short jumper before Aleah Nelson stole the ball on the Reds’ next possession and had just enough time to pass to Dixon in the corner for a buzzer-beating 3-pointer.

The Eagles (21-4) led the rest of the way as they advanced to the A Conference final for the seventh straight time, earning another matchup with No. 1 and two-time defending champion St. Frances, which defeated No. 6 John Carroll, 86-23, in the other semifinal. The title game is Sunday at 6 p.m. at Stevenson University.

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Turning up the defensive pressure has been the Eagles’ signature all season. They don’t fare well in a half-court game because they don’t have the height to match up against a lot of teams. They just like to play as fast as possible.

“That’s what we’re about,” Nelson said. “We had that little burst, but we like to try to play one constant speed the whole game. We want to be consistent. When [Dixon] hit those shots, we just kept going. When we get those steals and we start trapping ... and when we play really good defense that transitions to our offense. It all starts on defense for us.”

Playing with five guards, the Eagles kept the pressure on and Dixon, 5 feet 9, played a strong defensive game inside against the Reds’ 5-11 forward Mir McLean, who finished with 20 points.

“The pressure that we apply just wears on you and wears on you,” McDonogh coach Brad Rees said. “The pressure may not get you right away, it may not get you first quarter, but there’s going to be a stretch where you’re going to break down if you relax a little bit. I think that’s what happened there in the second quarter... If we don’t score out of some of that pressure, we struggle to score.”

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The Eagles, who had trailed by nine about three and a half minutes before halftime, got 13 points in the second quarter from Jessica Booth, who finished with 25. After the break, Dixon hit another 3-pointer and Kayla Liles added a putback to give McDonogh a nine-point lead. With their defense, transition offense and 19-for-22 free-throw shooting, they ran the lead as high as 67-53 with 4:26 left in the game.

The Reds (21-7) managed to close the lead to three late in the game, but they never overcame the Eagles’ 12-point run that spanned the break.

“It just got really like in a frenzy,” Roland Park coach Scott Buckley said, “and then we lost our composure maybe for like a minute, but that’s all it took. The 3 at the buzzer was a killer and I think we were a little hung over still from that and didn’t play great early in the second half. Then we dug in. I can’t be more proud of how we played.”

In the other semifinal, St. Frances had little trouble getting past John Carroll, taking a 25-2 lead after one quarter. Taneara Moore led the way with 20 points on 81 percent shooting from the field and added four rebounds and five steals. Aniya Gourdine had 16 points.

St. Frances (20-4) has not lost in A Conference competition since falling to McDonogh in the 2015 championship. The Eagles won three titles between 2012 and 2015. The Panthers have won 10 times since the IAAM was formed going into the 1999-2000 school year.

RP — Henson 4, McLean 20, Carpenter 11, Green 13, Robinson 6, Ferariu 15. Totals: 27 10-18 69.

M — Dixon 15, Nelson 12, Booth 25, Valdez 3, Liles 14, Oden 2, Class 2. Totals: 24 19-22 73. Half: M, 36-33.

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