McDonogh's Aleah Nelson discusses the No. 2 Eagles' basketball win over No. 3 Roland Park. (Katherine Dunn, Baltimore Sun video)
To McDonogh senior Taleah Dixon, rankings are just numbers.
Even though Roland Park earned a national girls basketball ranking as high as No. 14 in the MaxPreps Xcellent 25 heading into the new year, the Eagles didn’t think much about that Wednesday. They just went to Roland Park and turned a 10-point deficit late in the second quarter into a 53-45 victory.
“We’re not in the [national] rankings at all,” Dixon said. “We’re in The Baltimore Sun rankings. We’re No. 2 — St. Frances is No. 1 obviously — but that doesn’t matter to us. We’re coming to win regardless of whether they’re No. 1 or they’re No. 50. We’re just coming to win.”
Dixon, a senior guard headed for Loyola, led the Eagles (11-1) with 18 points as they improved to 3-0 in the Interscholastic Athletic Association of Maryland A Conference. They’ve won 11 straight since a season-opening loss to nationally ranked Hamilton Heights, Tenn., which has also beaten Roland Park.
The No. 3 Reds (13-3, 2-1) were coming off a loss to nationally ranked Long Island Lutheran on Sunday, but they had the upper hand early against McDonogh, running their lead to 10 in a first half that featured seven ties. Ja’Niah Henson’s steal and layup gave the Reds a 25-15 lead with 2:08 left in the half.
However, with the toughest Roland Park player for the Eagles to match up against — 5-foot-11 sophomore forward Mir McLean — on the bench with two fouls, McDonogh pumped up its pressure defense, forcing two turnovers that led to a couple of free throws by Jessica Booth and a 3-pointer by Aleah Nelson. The Eagles finished the half with 10 straight points.
Halftime didn’t interrupt their momentum. A couple of Roland Park turnovers against the full-court press led to layups from Treasure Valdez and Booth, and the Eagles added a bucket from Dixon for a 31-25 lead.
They opened the quarter with a 12-4 run to complete a 22-4 spurt. Booth hit Valdez for a back-door layup and Dixon added a free throw to run the lead to 37-29 with 2:37 left in the third quarter.
“We came out a little bit slow,” Nelson said, “but at halftime, coach Brad [Rees] just kind of told us to stay together and we had to box out their big, Mir, because she probably had double-digit rebounds, so it was just boxing out that really got us this win and also coming together.”
McLean finished with 16 points and 17 rebounds, and the Eagles had trouble matching up with her at times. With their top post player AJ Davis out for the season with an injury, Dixon stepped up to try to contain McLean, who sat several times in foul trouble.
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Still, the five-guard Eagles gave the Reds several significant matchup problems with their all-around quickness and their press that forced most of Roland Park’s 18 turnovers, including eight during the 22-4 run.
“We got in a little foul trouble which changed our substitution pattern,” Reds coach Scott Buckley said, “and then we had some really tough matchups. They’re playing basically five guards, so when our post kids play we’ve got to make sure we have the right matchups. They made a nice run in that last three minutes [of the first half] while Mir was on the bench and we struggled.”
The Reds cut the lead to four late in the third quarter and were within five with 5:10 to go after a follow shot from McLean. A 3-pointer from Dixon a little over a minute later pushed McDonogh’s lead to 46-37 and the Reds never got closer than six.
Both teams will be back in A Conference action Friday with the Eagles traveling to No. 9 John Carroll and the Reds hosting No. 12 St. Vincent Pallotti. Next week, both the Reds, No. 16 this week in MaxPreps Xcellent 25, and the Eagles have road games against St. Frances, the two-time defending A Conference champion ranked No. 25 in the Xcellent 25.