By Nelson Coffin
The last time Roland Park Country School’s basketball team played in an A Conference championship, the Reds suffered one of the most excruciating losses imaginable.
The 59-52 setback to McDonogh was a missed opportunity for Roland Park when the opportunistic Eagles tied the score with no time left on the clock to send the game into overtime before pulling out the victory.
Moreover, that was the sixth straight loss for the Reds in an A Conference final, which is something the current Reds’ roster is well aware of and is doing its due diligence to change.
To that end, top-seeded Roland Park (26-1) proved how well prepared it was to reach the program’s seventh championship by the way it handled business in a dominating performance against fourth-seeded St. Vincent Pallotti on Friday in the semifinal.
The Reds’ 58-28 triumph over the Panthers was every bit as lopsided as the score indicated and earns another title bid, this time against second-seeded St. Frances Academy (21-3) on Sunday at Stevenson University.
They have not played the St. Frances (21-3) in the title round since current Roland Park coach Dani Kell Steinbach was a standout player for the Reds 15 years ago.
Roland Park, riding a 16-game winning streak, escaped with a taut 58-57 victory over the Panthers the last time the teams met in late January. The Reds also topped St. Frances, 62-46, in their first encounter this season.
“I really like my team,” said Steinbach, who took over for her former coach, Scott Buckley, this season. “I like that we set out to win a championship from the first day of the season. We have worked extremely hard. We wanted the opportunity and we earned it. Nobody gave us anything.”
Her team was dominant from the first play against the Panthers (15-10) — a layup by junior forward Mir McLean on a pass from senior guard/forward Maria Ferariu. McLean, who totaled 19 points and 10 rebounds, would score two more quick buckets in what turned out to be a 15-1 run to open the game.
She had help in the scoring department from the uber-quick senior point guard Ja’Niah Henson, who led all scores with 20 points and added three assists. The Morgan State commit nailed four 3-pointers in the contest and used her speed to dribble past flummoxed Pallotti defenders in transition.
While the versatile Ferariu had an off-night shooting the ball (4-for-13, 0-4 from 3-point arc), she still collared six boards and handed out three assists.
By halftime, the Reds were up, 37-7, while making a defensive statement against a team that was held to its second-lowest point total of the season.
The only Pallotti push-back came from sophomore guard Makayla Waleed’s free throw and two layups and junior guard Nia Threat’s and junior guard/forward Tahlia Brown-Stangerlin’s free throws.
“It was just one of those nights for us,” Pallotti coach Joe Mathews said. “They really mades us feel uncomfortable. There were no gaps in their defense to get any space. We were a little rattled, too. It’s hard to win when you’re missing layups and not hitting you shots. Plus, they were keeping us off the boards.”
McLean said that a fast start and fearsome defense were part of a plan to keep moving forward.
“We know what we’ve had to do all year,” she said. “We were just doing what we had to do. We were really excited tonight. We had a lot of energy early.”
McLean said that the Reds talk about the championship drought “all the time” and are eager to change things.
“We look on it as a responsibility,” she said. “We hold each other accountable, and set goals for ourselves.”
Henson said that while the title-less streak can be a burden, “it’s also motivation” to capture one.
“Every teams wants to win a championship,” she said. “And in order to do that we have to stay together as a family.”