By Nelson Coffin
St. Frances Academy did not have a very good night on the offensive end in its showdown against top-seeded Roland Park Country School at Stevenson University on Sunday night.
It didn’t matter.
The Panthers (22-3) were so good defensively that they didn’t need their “A” game to claim their fourth straight A Conference basketball championship while beating the Reds, 33-29.
Roland Park (26-2) was held to 32 points below its scoring average this season and shot just 26 percent from the floor — and 12 percent from beyond the arc — in falling in the finals for the eighth time in as many attempts.
The Reds showed their defensive prowess as well, holding the Panthers to their lowest single-game scoring since bowing to Archbishop Spalding in 2013.
It just wasn’t enough to keep St. Frances from hoisting their 12th conference banners since 2001.
The Panthers certainly had it going offensively early by scoring the game’s first 10 points, with eight coming from Angel Reese.
That early explosion set a tone that would override any counter movement the Reds could come up with the rest of the way.
In fact, the 10-point bulge gave Reese the confidence to play a much more conservative game from that juncture. She never scored again, perhaps reasoning that the game was, as she put it, “in the bag,” even though it was still the first quarter.
Still, the 6-foot-3 junior said that she had plenty of help throughout the contest.
“It really wasn’t about me,” Reese said. “We had to play as a team. It was a team win.”
Roland Park simply couldn’t get anything going with the ball, mustering a mere 10 points by halftime while giving up just 18 to the Panthers.
“I felt like we never found our rhythm on offense,” Roland Park coach Dani Kell Steinbach said. “We knew the game was going to be about who made the most stops.”
The third quarter proved to be another standoff with senior guard JaNiah Henson (game-high 12 points) connecting for a couple of baskets for Roland Park and sophomore guard Aniyah Gourdine answering for St, Frances as the Panthers entered the final period with a 27-18 advantage.
Roland Park started to chip away behind Henson’s free throw and subsequent steal-and-finish before senior guard-forward Maria Ferariu’s lefty baseline drive.
When junior forward Mir McLean converted a Henson pass the Reds were within a bucket, 27-25, with just under five minutes remaining in regulation.
A great pass from junior center Madyson Hinton to senior guard Savawn Hughes gave the Panthers some breathing room that only lasted until McLean popped in a short jumper over Reese, who fouled out with 1:27 left.
Good defense by Hinton thwarted one Roland Park possession and sophomore power forward Anani Humphrey’s rebound bought St. Frances more time until Gourdine stroked in a pair of free throws with 21 seconds to go to finish with a team-high 11 points.
St. Frances junior shooting guard Kahlia Turner did the same 11 seconds later to end all the drama.
“I have to give props to my bench,” Reese said. “All I could do was cheer for them (after fouling out) and they did what they needed to do.”’
The quick start ignited by Reese was crucial, St. Frances coach Jerome Shelton said.
“One of my biggest concerns was about whether we could get off to a good start — and we did,” he said. “And it was our best defensive effort of the year.”
Steinbach said that the loss could not obliterate what her team accomplished this year.
“We had a fantastic run.” she said. “And we’ve handled ourselves with composure in the face of extreme disappointment.”