Girls’ basketball: Damascus gets ready for showdown with Aberdeen in state semifinal

Following the Maryland 3A playoff draw a few weeks ago, Damascus Coach Steve Pisarski was convinced his team had the toughest draw in the West bracket. The Swarmin’ Hornets have learned the last two years how difficult it can be to make it out of that field.

But Damascus’s last three performances, especially Friday’s 60-42 blowout of South Hagerstown in the 3A West region final, have indicated not only light resistance for a club closing in on a state championship — but also a team that has fully matured after a heartbreaking exit from the postseason last year.

Damascus (23-2) will meet defending state champion Aberdeen in the state semifinal on Thursday night at UMBC.

“They’re very good. You know, they’re the defending state champs,” Pisarski said of Aberdeen. “They pretty much ran through everybody they played other than Riverdale Baptist,” which won 85-67.

Damascus was beaten by Frederick in the West region final in each of the last two seasons, including last year’s 60-59 loss in overtime. After beating Tuscarora 70-51 in last week’s quarterfinal (junior Kelli Prange had 22 points), Damascus earned a rematch with Frederick in the semifinal on Wednesday, dispatching the Cadets by eight — its closest margin of victory all season. Damascus beat every other team by double digits, with the exception of nonconference losses to Bishop Canevin (Pa.) and Hiland (Ohio) in mid-January.

Nick Ashooh fills in for B.J. Koubaroulis to run through the top plays from high school basketball games in D.C., Maryland and Virginia. (Synthesis/Koubaroulis LLC/The Washington Post)

Those losses turned the corner for Damascus, and Pisarski said that his team is much sharper defensively six weeks later. The Swarmin’ Hornets ripped off eight straight wins to close out the regular season, holding opponents to an average of 33 points per game in that stretch. In three playoff wins, Damascus is giving up just 45 points per game — which is slightly better than the three-game average of 52.1 points per game average last season.

“Defensively, we’ve come a long way,” Pisarski said. “Those [losses] helped us. We learned that we were vulnerable to certain things.”

Offensively, Damascus certainly has the look of a team built for a late postseason run. It has a star in 6-foot-4 junior forward Kelli Prange (16.0 ppg), a guard who can carry the scoring load in Jenna Kaufman (who had 15 against South Hagerstown), and two 6-foot-1 post players in Becky Barrett and Lauren Derby that bring a physical presence to a team that receives a major percentage of its scoring production from guards.

Matching up against Aberdeen is another issue, Pisarksi said. Breaking through the 3A West bracket is one accomplishment, and breaking through the state bracket is another.

“They’re probably the favorite to win it all,” Pisarski said. “But I think we’re pretty good. I think we got a shot at it.”

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