Paint Branch junior guard Daisa Harris jumped in front of a pass Thursday night, scooped the ball off the backboard and yelled in celebration at no one in particular. She knocked down an open jump shot and yelled. She collected the ball in transition, found a teammate for an easy layup — and yelled.
The passionate cheers were punctuation marks to every significant play that Harris or her teammates made in their Maryland 4A North region semifinal against Howard.
“She’s, I guess, our hype man,” Coach Rochelle Coleman said. “She just loves playing basketball, and that’s how she plays.”
Harris finished with 20 points, five rebounds and six assists to complement her endless energy, leading the 14th-ranked Panthers past Howard on the road, 64-49. Center Sofilia Ngwafang added 10 points, five rebounds and an intimidating post presence off the bench, while Kiara Colston scored 14.
With the win, Paint Branch (22-2) advanced to Saturday’s region final, in which it will host Catonsville, a 49-28 winner over Perry Hall.
The Lions (21-3) entered Thursday’s game with the sixth-ranked scoring defense in the area. They were allowing just 31.1 points per game and had only given up 40 points in four games this season. But the Panthers countered with the area’s No. 4 offense (69.1 points per game), a frantic attack that the rest of Montgomery County knows well.
In the matchup of strengths, Paint Branch’s offense set the tempo for the game. The Panthers relentlessly pushed the pace, knocked down open shots and overpowered the Lions in the post.
“Our thing was to attack the basket and then press up on them,” Harris said. “We knew that as they were coming at us, we had to keep coming at them so we could slow them down.”
The Panthers led by nine points after the first quarter and 12 at halftime as Howard center Sydney Biniak quickly fell into foul trouble in the final game of her high school career. Her absence created opportunities for Ngwafang, who had a significant size advantage over the rest of Howard’s roster.
“We needed to run our plays,” Colston said. “We couldn’t go 1-on-5. We had to play as a team.”
Howard opened the second half with a 7-2 run to pull within five, but they were slowed by turnovers and a stingy Paint Branch defense the rest of the way. The Panthers forced 14 turnovers, including several steals that turned into easy layups for Harris and company.
“We had to stay solid today,” Colston said. “We’re really fidgety, I’d say. We like to jump in, try to get our steals. But we had to stay solid.”
Paint Branch led by double digits for most of the second half to win its 12th straight game, a streak that dates back to Jan. 17. But a dozen victories isn’t enough for Harris.
“I want my team to go all the way,” she said. “I feel as if we can do this.”