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St. John’s girls, back at full strength, repeat as WCAC champions

Cadets 48, Panthers 36

Junior point guard Kyndal Walker and her St. John's teammates hoist the WCAC girls' basketball championship trophy after beating Paul VI on Monday at Bender Arena. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
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Kyndal Walker dribbled in place and glanced up at the clock, which told her another title was imminent. The junior point guard and her St. John’s teammates were about to win a second consecutive Washington Catholic Athletic Conference title with a 48-36 win over Paul VI on Monday at American University.

As the seconds ticked away, Walker turned to senior Delaney Thomas and flipped her the ball. Thomas, caught off guard by the gesture, laughed as she bobbled it for a second. As the buzzer sounded, Thomas cradled the gift and gave her teammate a hug.

“I wanted to make sure she could close it out with the ball in her hands,” Walker said. “This is her last time. I’ll have more chances.”

Thomas, a Duke signee, was supposed to be the face of this young Cadets team as it looked to defend its WCAC title this winter. But in mid-December, she broke her hand at the Nike Tournament of Champions in Arizona.

Suddenly, the Cadets needed to overhaul their vision for the season. They dropped their first three games without Thomas and entered WCAC play without a clear formula for contention. Over time, Walker and a young rotation settled in. After that three-game skid, the Cadets (25-6) finished the season by going 15-2.

“We had to completely reinvent ourselves,” Coach Jonathan Scribner said. “So Kyndal put the Superman cape on, and we had a lot of other players grow up into huge roles.”

Thomas tried to spend as much time as possible around the team, hoping for a seamless return when the day came. Privately, she grew anxious about whether she would be back. But Feb. 17, nearly two months after her injury, she returned to the lineup on senior day. The Cadets won that game, also against Paul VI (20-10), by 10.

Suddenly, the Cadets were at full strength. That meant trouble for the rest of the conference.

“It was a sad period for me because it’s my senior year and I had some hopes and dreams,” Thomas said. “But I think it was the best thing that could have happened to this team. A lot of the young players gained confidence and were able to play freely. I think it got our team to the point that we could make this run.”

The run included blowouts of Elizabeth Seton and Good Counsel to start the tournament and a balanced, clinical performance Monday. After a slow first half, the Cadets led by four points. They pulled away in the third quarter, holding the Panthers to seven points and pushing their lead to double digits. On the night, the Cadets held the Panthers to 24 percent shooting and outrebounded them 43-25.

“We’ve faced some adversity this season, but we’ve consistently come back from it, consistently proven why we’re winners,” Walker said.

Thomas led the team with 13 points, the smart and savvy leader for a tested and capable cast of teammates. Walker added 10, and junior Carolae Barton finished with 11.

“There were so many times when I didn’t know if tonight was even a possibility,” Thomas said. “I’m just so proud of this team and how much we’ve grown.”