By Nelson Coffin
After losing their best defensive player, junior Rain Green, to a season-ending knee injury last week, things looked bleak for a Roland Park Country School team with high hopes of claiming the program’s first-ever A Conference basketball crown.
That’s when Roland Park coach Danie Kell Steinbach decided to let her players have some fun at practice.
Instead of going over X’s and O’s, the Reds played a version of blindfolded dodgeball that senior guard Ja’Niah Henson called “Bird Box.”
Regardless of what you call it or how the game unfolded, Kell Steinbach allowed her team to relax at just the opportune moment as the season wears on and the Reds push forward toward their ultimate goal.
“The girls were really devastated” (by Green’s loss), said Carol Hatton, the school’s athletic director. “Dani is really great with the girls, and she knew what to do.”
Kelll Steinbach intimated that her players just needed some levity.
“It was important for the team to have a pressure release,” the coach said.
With another big game on the agenda, the Reds responded on Monday with a big win over McDonogh, 48-43, to remain unbeaten in the A Conference chase for a top postseason seed.
Although It may not have been the most aesthetically pleasing performance of the season, topping a quality opponent like the Eagles is always a good thing.
Moreover, the Reds found a way to expand their playing rotation just enough to prevail in the defensive struggle that kept them atop the IAAM A Conference with a perfect 11-0 mark. They are now 20-1 overall after claiming their 11th straight win.
“It was a big adjustment playing without Rain,” Kell Steinbach said. “We just had to practice and play together as a team. It was next Reds up. McDonogh is so well coached that we knew they would come in with a game plan to make us uncomfortable. We just had to control the controllables and play together.”
Without Green, Henson had to step to the fore, and the Morgan State commit did just that.
Henson guarded senior sharpshooter Aleah Nelson, who still led the Eagles with 14 points and put a scare into the Reds in the closing minutes by nailing a baseline three-pointer before coaxing a runner through the cylinder moments later.
“Aleah had 31 (points) the last time we played them,” Henson said. “Our defense was critical (to the win).”
Nelson’s final basket of the game sliced Roland Park’s lead to 44-40 with 1:22 remaining in regulation.
Fortunately for the Reds, Henson then knocked down a pair of free throws for a team that went 14-for-18 from the line in the contest.
Henson was also instrumental to the victory earlier in the game, especially when she had two of her team-best six steals late in the first half that she turned into layups while helping Roland Park to a 23-17 halftime advantage.
Other contributors included junior forward Mir McLean (15 points, 5 rebounds), senior combo guard Maria Ferariu (11 points, 5 rebounds, 2 steals, block) and senior forward Christyn Robinson (4 points, 7 rebounds, steal, block).
And freshman guard Myah Simmons added a key three-ball in the third period that ignited a 10-1 run that put the Reds ahead by double digits, 36-25, late in the quarter.
They still led by 11 with time slipping away before the Eagles rallied with a 10-4 closing spurt.
Their final bucket, on a coast-to-coast finish by sophomore guard Jayla Oden, put the visitors within reach, at 46-43, of completing a stunning comeback with 19 seconds remaining in regulation.
Much to McDonogh coach Brad Rees’ dismay, one of his players fouled Ferariu, who swished both of her tries from the stripe and Roland Park secured the verdict.
“Losing a kid like Rain really hurts Roland Park,” said Rees, who should know since he has been without the services of standout Jessica Booth this season due to a similar injury to Green’s. “But Roland Park is really well coached. And everybody else who filled in for them did a really good job. They did the little stuff well, and that’s why they beat us.”