By Nelson Coffin
Roland Park Country School basketball coach Dani Kell Steinbach isn't taking all if the credit for her team's long-awaited breakthrough game against nemesis McDonogh after the Reds topped the Eagles, 61-57, on Wednesday night in Owings Mills.
The win snapped an eight-game losing streak to McDonogh, with the last Roland Park win against McDonogh coming nearly four years ago under then-coach Scott Buckley.
Steinbach was quick to point out that Buckley built a strong foundation for the program and that he should share in the well-deserved kudos.
McDonogh senior combo guard Aleah Nelson, who had a career-best 19 points in the first half and totaled 31 for the game, did her level best to spoil the Reds' party.
“Since I’m a senior, I knew I had to take charge,” said Nelson, who will be headed to the University of Cincinnati next fall to begin her college hoop career. “It’s a tough loss, but they’re a really good team.”
Considering that another standout, fellow senior Jessica Booth was on the sideline rooting on her McDonogh teammates because she is out for the season with a knee injury, it's easy to see why the Eagles are going through a period of adjustment to begin the campaign.
The Reds (6-0, 2-0 conference), who had also dropped 13 out of 14 decisions to the Eagles (3-2, 2-1) dating back to the 2012, were spurred by junior guard/forward Mir McLean and senior guard/forward Maria Ferariu.
That prolific tandem burned the Eagles for a combined 38 points on 14-for-20 shooting from the floor.
McLean, in addition to scoring 21 points, converted five-of-six free throws, grabbed eight rebounds and had four steals while Ferariu (17 points) connected on three-of-five three-pointers, hauled down three rebounds and had three assists, including a crucial one in crunch time.
The Drexel commit’s last assist came on a pretty drive-and-dish to senior forward Christyn Robinson with less than two minutes remaining in regulation, a timely counter to Nelson’s final three-pointer of the game on the previous play that briefly pulled McDonogh to within 55-51 during a furious rally that had the crowd roaring and the Eagles soaring.
Even with Nelson’s big night in the first half, the teams went into the break deadlocked, 31-31, although McDonogh then went on a 6-0 run on buckets by sophomore guard Jayla Oden, Nelson and freshman forward Nekhu Mitchell to build a 37-31 advantage.
Instead of backing down to a talented opponent on the road or simply shrinking in the face of recent unfavorable history, the Reds made a statement by closing the third period on a sizzling 15-2 run to take the lead and never give it back.
Roland Park’s rally started with a pair of made free throws by senior point guard Ja’Niah Henson and two more by McLean before she tied the score on a nice pass inside from Ferariu, who buried a three to put her team in the lead for good.
Two free throws by junior guard Rain Green, a Henson runner and Ferariu’s sweeping lefty drive completed the run and gave the Reds 46-39 cushion heading into the fourth quarter.
The Eagles would claw back to wishing two points three times, but never drew even.
“We have a lot of strong upperclassmen, and their leadership really helped us today,” said Steinbach. “They were fantastic.”
As much as she and the Reds were ecstatic after finally topping the Eagles, Steinbach said that the team has to focus on each game in the highly competitive A Conference.
“As soon as the schedule come out, we circle this game,” she said. “But we didn’t really start focusing (on McDonogh) until after the (Archbishop) Spoalding game (a 61-36 victory on Monday). We know that it’s going to take all five players for all 32 minutes to win in this league — and every game is important.”
McLean wore a huge smile after the victory.
“It feels really good,” she said. “We knew with this group that we had a chance to win.”
McDonogh coach Brad Rees said that his team’s effort was there throughout the loss.
“That’s the hardest we’ve played all year,” he said. “We played really hard, but not always very smart. But we’ll get better.”