OWINGS MILLS, MD. — Pallotti seniors Eniya Russell and Jania Hall stood with their arms around each other, speaking quietly amid a crowd of fans. Sunday's Interscholastic Athletic Association of Maryland A Conference championship game had ended 15 minutes before, and both guards featured the windbreakers and gym bags typical of basketball players who are done for the day.

It had been a roller coaster evening for Russell, Hall and the rest of the No. 10 Panthers. They had reached the IAAM A final for the first time in program history, and they had Baltimore powerhouse St. Frances, which entered the game having won four straight conference titles, on the ropes at Stevenson University. But ultimately, they watched their efforts fall just short in a 55-51 defeat.

“A lot of people were doubting us, and we made it this far,” Russell said. “And that takes a lot of hard work.”

Russell, a McDonald’s all-American and the key to Pallotti’s resurgent season, watched the game’s final minutes from the bench. She had been frustrated by a physical St. Frances team all evening and picked up her fourth foul midway through the third quarter. Coach Joe Mathews allowed her to return at the start of the fourth, but the South Carolina commit lasted just a minute and a half. As both fan bases cheered for different reasons, Russell held back tears as she greeted her teammates on the bench.

“I feel like [the refs] robbed me today — they robbed us,” Russell said. “But this team didn’t give up. We had them.”

Hall refused to let Russell’s absence knock the Panthers (21-7, 10-4 IAAM) out of the game. The guard led a spirited comeback in the final three minutes, cutting Pallotti’s deficit to just two with 42 seconds remaining. The gym was packed to the brim with a Pallotti-heavy crowd that was deafening as the Panthers brought the ball upcourt out of a timeout. Hall got a good look on a midrange jumper, but her shot slipped off the front of the rim.

“We didn’t fold. We didn’t crack under pressure,” Hall said. “St. Frances was just the better team at the end.”

St. Frances (24-3, 15-1) closed the game out with free throws and broke into a raucous celebration at the final buzzer. Led by a McDonald’s all-American of its own, Maryland commit Angel Reese, St. Frances has been one of the best teams in the state, if not the country, this season. The players and coaching staff held five fingers high in the air after Pallotti shook their hands and quickly exited to the locker room.

“We turned a lot of heads this season,” Russell said. “We won a lot of games that nobody thought we would ever win. We were never a topic of conversation, and nobody thought we’d make it this far. But we did.”