Even if it didn’t provide the momentous win they were hoping for, this past week served as a testament to the power and growth of the Bishop McNamara girls’ basketball program.
On Tuesday, the Mustangs played in one of the most anticipated local matchups of the year. hosting No. 2 St. John’s. Fans, media and college coaches packed the school’s gym an hour before tip-off, waiting to see whether McNamara, which had risen to the top of local and national polls, could capture an era-defining win over the defending WCAC champions.
The last time McNamara had beaten St. John’s was in early 2016, just as Coach Frank Oliver was laying the foundation for the program’s current success. With two of his three best players now in their senior year, Oliver said in November that the team was building toward this season. They had wanted to play in games like Tuesday’s.
“It was a great environment for women’s basketball in our area and for the country,” Oliver said. “Hats off to our fans and supporters; we appreciate all their love.”
The game lived up to the hype, as the teams traded blows and the action spilled into overtime. Mississippi State commit Aliyah Matharu led the Mustangs with 29 points, scoring some key late buckets. But the Cadets got hot and then made their free throws to ice it, beating McNamara, 67-65.
“It’s a marathon, not a sprint. It’s the first of possibly three games between us, and we have another one next week,” Oliver said.
The Mustangs received good news two days after the loss, as Jakia Brown-Turner became the first McNamara player named to the McDonald’s all-American game. The senior forward was one of two local players selected for the annual 24-player event, joining Paul VI’s Ashley Owusu. Brown-Turner, an N.C. State commit, is averaging 16.2 points this season.
“I just feel very blessed,” Brown-Turner said. “I’ve put in a lot of hard work to get this. This was one of my goals.”
Brown-Turner said she found out about her selection after school, as she watched the announcement with her teammates during study hall. Support and congratulations poured in on social media. Her selection was another step forward for the program, two days after it proved it could compete on an elite level.
— Michael Errigo
Parkdale riding a six-game win streak
When forward Nycerra Minnis bruised her knee against College Park Academy on Dec. 10, Parkdale’s chemistry was knocked out of sorts. The Panthers dropped five of their next six games before Minnis returned Dec. 29.
With its star back in the lineup, Parkdale’s role players settled into their positions. The Panthers have won six consecutive games, including a 59-44 victory over DuVal on Friday.
“Our young ladies are pretty much coming together,” Coach Lawrence Watson said. “We’re finding our niche right now. They have the taste of the winning ways again, and it’s pretty hard to knock that taste out of their mouth.”
Parkdale (8-6) has reached the Maryland 4A South title game four consecutive years and qualified for the semifinals in 2016. The Panthers finished 17-6 last season but graduated their top three scorers.
Minnis, who averages 13.5 points and 17.4 rebounds, gained control of the Panthers’ offense. The junior helps open opportunities for others, such as when guard Ymani Davis notched 20 of Parkdale’s 36 points against Laurel on Tuesday.
“The turnovers have reduced dramatically,” Watson said. “Everybody knows where they are on the floor. It’s making it more difficult for teams.”
— Kyle Melnick
Clarksburg looks prepared in a win over Gaithersburg
With her team beating opponents by nearly 25 points per game, Clarksburg Coach Cecilia Natoli has the luxury to sit starters at the end of games. But against Northwest on Tuesday, she decided to play her starters in the fourth quarter despite being up by more than 20.
“We wanted to keep the kids crisp because we play Gaithersburg on Friday,” Natoli said after Tuesday’s 55-35 win. “I was trying to get them to adjust to different paces of their teammates.”
It seems she made the right decision as the Coyotes needed every ounce of their crisp effort Friday to beat Gaithersburg, 55-53, and improve to 12-2. Freshman Mia Smith scored a team-high 18 points while Denise Ventura and Sadejah Smith added 10 apiece.
“Mia reads the floor well. She energizes the kids around her, and I love that about her,” Natoli said. “They see her working hard and they want to work as hard. You don’t always get that from a freshman.”
With first place in Montgomery County 4A West secured, the Coyotes can use the remaining regular season games to improve their weaknesses, such as half-court offense.
“In practice, there’s no pressure,” Natoli said. “Here, you’re in the frying pan: you’re either going to make plays or you’re going to get fried.”
— David J. Kim
West Springfield thrives on music, teamwork
West Springfield is on a five-game winning streak, and the Spartans attribute their success to off-court relationships and new traditions.
The Spartans (15-2, 5-1 Patriot District), have placed more emphasis on team-bonding this season — whether on bus rides or in hangouts.
“The team gets along really well; it’s a different team than I’ve ever had,” Coach Bill Gibson said. “They genuinely like each other, and when they get on the court, they play hard.”
On the court, West Springfield is locked in and plays a committed, focused game. Off the court is a different story, especially when it comes to getting loose before tip-off.
Junior guard Bridget Laychak and junior forward Ainsley Buckner serve as team DJs, tasked with blasting songs the entire team will belt out.
“They’re singing the whole [bus ride] over and whole way back; not always the greatest voices, but they sing,” Gibson laughed. “When they get to the games, they’re loose and ready to play.”
It’s this kind of culture, led by captain and senior Molly Sharman, that’s helped the Spartans find chemistry with one another and ultimately, lead the Patriot District.
West Springfield will look to keep the momentum going and is setting its sights on winning the district and a state championship.
“They buy into [the culture], they put the team first and know how important it is to put the team first,” Gibson said. “They all want to win and do what they have to do and what’s best for the team.”
— Sammi Silber