After taking a couple of surprise losses this past week, the No. 1 St. Frances boys basketball team returned to form Friday against visiting Mount Saint Joseph.
Balanced scoring with different players performing at different times has been the season-long theme for the Panthers, and that once again proved the difference in a 65-58 win over the No. 3 Gaels in the regular-season finale.
Four players reached double figures — senior Elijah Epps and sophomore Jordan Toles shared team-high honors with 13 points apiece — as the Panthers (31-4) locked up the top seed in the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association A Conference’s Red Division after already having clinched the top seed in the Baltimore Catholic League. On Tuesday, they open the MIAA A playoffs hosting Mount Carmel with the quarterfinal set for 7 p.m.
The Gaels, who will be the second seed in both leagues, had their 19-game winning streak end to close out the regular season with a 27-4 mark. They will host McDonogh in Tuesday’s quarterfinal, also set for 7 p.m. Junior James Bishop scored a game-high 25 points with senior Jalen Smith adding 22 in the losing cause.
For the Panthers, who were upset by Loyola Blakefield on Feb. 9 and then St. Vincent Pallotti on Monday before beating Glenlg Country on Wednesday to get back on track, the quality home win against the Gaels provided further validation of where they stand.
“We just knew we could outplay them, so that’s playing to our strength and that’s playing hard on defense and staying aggressive around the rim,” Toles said. “We knew it was OK — every team goes through a little slump when they lose, and we knew we just had to bounce back quick.”
When sophomore point guard Adrian Baldwin (11 points) converted a three-point play with 38 seconds left in the first quarter, the Panthers had the lead for good at 14-12. From there, they led by as many as seven in the second quarter, eight in the third and their biggest advantage would be 64-55 when Epps hit two free throws with 23 seconds to play.
As has been the case all season, the Panthers’ depth was too much for their opponent.
Reserve forward Detwan Montague provided a spark late in the second quarter, finishing his second consecutive put-back before Toles converted a three-point play for a 28-21 lead.
In the third quarter, with the lead down to 37-33, reserve Bassirou Diop blocked a shot at the defensive end and then finished on a fast break at the other end for a 39-33 lead.
Senior forward Koran Moore scored seven of his 11 points in the fourth quarter with Toles converting a key three-point play in the final minute. Epps sealed the win with four free throws afterward, offsetting a fine fourth quarter from Bishop, who scored the Gaels’ last 14 points.
“We just kept fighting,” Epps said. “We have to be very confident. That’s the only way we’re going to win [in the playoffs]. Everybody has to be confident and no letdowns.”
MSJ — Myers 5, Bishop 25, J. Smith 22, McMillan 4, McDonald 2. Totals: 1715-23 58
SF — Baldwin 11, Epps 13, Diop 4, Jones 4, Moore 11, Toles 13, Montague 4, Henry 5. Totals: 20 24-26 65
Half: SF, 28-24