On the biggest stage of her high school career, Paul VI senior Ariana Freeman struggled to find her touch. Layups and jumpers alike rimmed out for the Louisville recruit, and offensive fouls disrupted her play in Tuesday’s Washington Catholic Athletic Conference championship.

But with her team trailing No. 4 St. John’s by one point in the final minute at American’s Bender Arena, the All-Met had the ball in her hands.

She drove to the hoop through contact and banked in a layup with 36 seconds remaining to give the third-ranked Panthers a lead they would not relinquish. Her ensuing free throw gave her team a bucket of breathing room, and Paul VI hung on for a 57-54 win over the Cadets to claim the first WCAC tournament title in school history.

“The game was frustrating because I wasn’t making any shots,” said Freeman, who scored just eight points on the night. “But I just had to do what I had to do for my team. My shots weren’t falling, so I had to make it up on defense.”

Paul VI (26-5) trailed 27-22 at the half as Cadets sophomore Shelbi Harris attacked the Panthers’ 2-3 zone to score all 11 of her points before the break.

To make matters worse for the Panthers, senior Jonquanae Cole picked up her third and fourth fouls on back-to-back charge calls with six minutes remaining in the third quarter and her team trailing by five.

With Cole (12 points) on the bench for the rest of the period and Freeman struggling, sophomore guard Jasmine Whitney scored seven of her 10 points, taking advantage of a series of transition opportunities created by Paul VI’s defense to get to the rim to give the Panthers a 40-39 lead heading into the fourth quarter.

“Our team just came together, and we had to get some of the foul calls that they were getting,” Whitney said. “We all decided to attack more and be the aggressor.”

The fourth quarter featured 10 lead changes as neither team could push its lead beyond three points. St. John’s junior Amari Carter (16 points), who grimaced through the pain of a stress fracture in her left shin, knocked down a three-pointer to knot the game with just over three minutes remaining.

The teams traded baskets on three consecutive trips, but after Freeman converted her three-point play to push the Panthers’ lead to two, the Cadets (23-7) made one of two free throws and were forced to foul. Lindsey Oblitey (14 points) swished two three throws to increase the lead to three with four seconds left.

Paul VI beat DeMatha Stags, 56-37, for its second WCAC title. The Paul VI girls beat St. John’s, 57-54, to win its first ever WCAC title. (Nick Plum/The Washington Post)

“It means everything when all your hard work finally pays off,” Freeman said. “It’s so fulfilling, and you can’t fake that.”