by Derek Toney
For Jania Hall and Tahlia Brown-Stangherlin, every basketball season at St. Vincent Pallotti has been a transition.
This season is heading into unfamiliar territory after the Panthers defeated Institute of Notre Dame, 56-49, in an A Conference quarterfinal match on Sister Karen Court in Laurel on Wednesday.
Hall finished with 15 points and junior Jasmine Valentine added 14 points for Pallotti (15-9 overall).
The fourth-seeded Panthers put together a gritty second-half effort to earn a trip to Roland Park Country School, the No. 1 seed, for a semifinal contest Friday in North Baltimore. The Reds, the consensus No. 1 team in Baltimore, disposed of eighth-seed Archbishop Spalding, 64-46, in a quarterfinal Wednesday.
It will be the first A Conference final four for Pallotti since 2016 (lost to eventual champ St. Frances Academy). The Panthers have had three coaches since and five total since the end of the 2012-13 season.
Hall, who has had three coaches in her three years on varsity, said it’s been “rough.”
“We have to adjust every single year to a different style,” said Hall. “It’s all a challenge, but we’ve always get through it. It’s rough in the beginning, but we come together as a team.”
Wednesday probably best encapsulated Hall’s statement. Trailing by as many as six points in the first half, Pallotti did a solid job sharing the ball and making effort plays, outscoring IND (10-14), 34-24, in the second half.
“We’ve struggled offensively in a couple of different games, but we really started attacking the gaps in the zone and sharing the ball well, not settling for jump shots,” said Panthers’ first-year Joe Mathews. “I don’t think we hit that many jump shots, but we ended up scoring 30 points in the second half, which is good for us.”
Hall’s 3-pointer, Pallotti’s only made shot outside of 5-feet in the second half, gave the hosts a 29-27 advantage early in the third quarter. The Panthers stretched the lead to five before settling for a 42-39 advantage entering the final period.
Pallotti pulled away, starting with junior point guard Nkaikya Smith finding Valentine for an easy layup. The Panthers got several second chances before Brown-Stangherlin dropped a runner, extending the lead to 46-39.
Hall intercepted a pass near midcourt and gave the ball to Smith, who gave it back to Hall for a layup. Smith sliced her way through the IND defense for a basket, giving Pallotti a 50-40 advantage with five minutes left in regulation.
“All our players hustle. I’m not much of a scorer, and I like doing the little things, but we all did them tonight,” said Brown-Strangherlin, another three-year letter winner who finished with 12 points Wednesday.
IND coach Rob DuBose, whose program returned to the IAAM A this season after winning the B crown last season, said Pallotti’s experience wore on his team in the second half.
“They’re stronger, older group that keeps grinding,” said DuBose. “You can see with a new coach they tried some different things, but what I appreciate about them is they play hard.”
Junior guard Aniyah Russell finished with 12 points for IND, and freshman Tsion Smith added 11. DuBose, who graduates only La’Shyra Williams and Shaela Foster off his roster, was pleased to finish fifth in the regular season standings after a rough start.
Mathews commended his team’s resiliency, considering he played only six players because of illnesses. Sophomore Makayla Waleed added nine points.
Mathews, who guided Key School girls last season after leading the boys team to the MIAA B Conference title in 2016-17, said his new team has been receptive.
“They really haven’t had an opportunity to develop a culture,” said Mathews. “That’s been the challenge, trying to get them to the point where it’s a player-led team instead of a coach-led team.”
It will be all hands on deck for Pallotti Friday against Roland Park (25-1), which hasn’t lost in A Conference action this season. The Reds, ranked 20th nationally by USA Today, defeated Pallotti twice in the regular season (62-42 and 64-53).
The Panthers had a double-digit advantage in the latter match before falling to the Reds.
“Coming in, its going to be 0-0,” said Hall. “We just have to keep the right mentality and we can beat them.“