The St. Frances girls basketball team honored its five seniors with presents and balloons before Saturday's home game against National Christian Academy. Junior Nia Clouden, however, would give them the best gift of all.
Clouden hit a buzzer-beating 18-footer in overtime to give the No. 1 Panthers a 75-74 victory over National Christian Academy and the first undefeated regular season in program history – 25-0.
In a game that neither team led by more than six points and that National Christian's Elizabeth Martino tied with a 3-pointer as time expired in regulation, the Panthers had the last opportunity, an inbounds pass under their own basket with 5.2 seconds to play.
Clouden, a 5-foot-8 All-Metro guard, took the pass from Kierra Jackson about four feet above the 3-point arc on the left side. She dribbled a few times, launched the ball from just inside the line, swished it perfectly and set off a mob scene on the Panthers' home court.
"We drew up a play and it kind of got broke, so we didn't really do what they told us to do," Clouden said. "I just went to somewhere that was open. I caught the ball, pump faked and shot and it went in. I was ecstatic, excited, elated, everything."
The Panthers have been steadily moving up in the national rankings, currently No. 12 in MaxPreps Xcellent 25 and No. 17 in USA Today's Super 25. National Christian (18-4), from Fort Washington in Prince George's County, is not nationally ranked but is No. 3 in The Washington Post.
"Our players have played through tough circumstances all year," said Panthers coach Jerome Shelton, who took his players to the Title IX and She Got Game classics in Washington, the Festival of the Phoenix in New Jersey and the Rose Classic in New York. "The schedule was designed to get us to this point where we can make a play like that at the end of the game."
And withstand the one National Christian made to force overtime.
With 2:30 left in regulation, the Panthers trailed 64-60, but Mia Davis scored five of her 21 points and fed Mikiara Carroll to take a 67-64 lead with 30 seconds left. They led by the same score when National Christian and St. Frances called back-to-back timeouts with 2.3 seconds left.
Mykea Gray, who led the Eagles with 27 points, tossed the inbounds pass from the sideline to freshman Martino, who waited for Clouden to jump past her and hit the 20-footer to force overtime.
There was "a little frustration because we know that we had the lead, but then again knowing that we can still push and win," said Davis, a 6-foot All-Metro senior forward who also had 11 rebounds.
In overtime, the Eagles took a 72-69 lead on Gray's three-point play, but Davis cut the lead to 72-71 with a transition bucket with 1:46 left. Gray added two free throws before Carroll hit a layup as National Christian led 74-73 with 36 seconds to go before Clouden's shot won it.
The Panthers, who have a strong inside-outside game, struggled in the paint for much of the game. Freshman forward Angel Reese, who got into early foul trouble, scored all six of her points on free throws but made up for it with a handful of assists and 16 rebounds.
"They were playing zone which they were packing it in a lot," Davis said. "They really played the posts more than they played outside so we just kept rotating, making them go in and out and rebounding well."
Shelton said each team was thoroughly scouted by the other.
"They know our strengths and we knew what their strengths were and I think what you saw here was a very tactical battle and that's why the game was close," he said. "Both teams made some runs and both teams were able to get back in the game and get a little numerical advantage, but the game was always within reach of the other team."
The Panthers were coming off a 48-38 win Monday at Riverdale Baptist, The Washington Post's No. 11 team.
Eagles coach Henry Anglin knew who were the keys for the Panthers.
"We knew who their main threats were, Mia Davis and Nia Clouden," he said. "We knew that they were going to be really aggressive and we wanted to slow them down."
Clouden, who finished with 14 points, scored St. Frances' first 10 points of the game. Carroll, a senior guard, finished with 12. The Panthers got a huge third-quarter boost from freshman guard Delicia Pinnick, who scored all 15 of her points on 3-pointers, including four in a little over two minutes late in the quarter.
The teams combined for 17 3-pointers. Gray and Promise Cunningham (11 points) hit three each for the Eagles, who had nine.
The Panthers now move on to the Interscholastic Athletic Association of Maryland A Conference tournament where they are the defending champions and the No. 1 seed. They have a bye into Thursday's semifinals when they will host the winner of Tuesday's quarterfinal between No. 9 Seton Keough and St. Vincent Pallotti.
Shelton, who won his 500th career game last season, raised his arms in the air as the players celebrated the victory and their first undefeated regular season.
"I told the team, as I told them last year when I won the 500th game … that they have this distinction with the tremendous legacy of the program and all of the championships that we've won. This team has kind of separated itself in some way, but this program is still defined by championships, so we still have more games to play."
NCA—Calder 14, Hewlett 7, Gray 27, E.Martino 15, Cunningham. Totals 23 19-25 74.
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SF—Davis 21, Carroll 12, Settle 5, Reese 6, Jackson 2, Pinnick 15, Clouden 14. Totals 27 13-16 75. Half: NCA, 31-28.