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WASHINGTON, D.C. – Following their 57-49 semifinal victory over Paul VI on Feb. 24, the Bishop McNamara High School girls basketball team showered Head Coach Frank Oliver Jr. with a mini-Gatorade bath, celebrating the possibility of competing to win the school’s first Washington Catholic Athletic Conference (WCAC) Tournament Championship since 2008.
About 28 hours later, the same McNamara faces were consumed with disappointment and regret.
For the third time this season, the Lady Mustangs were stopped by a St. John’s team led the play of sophomore Azzi Fudd, who scored a game-high 32 points.
Combined with the play of their role players, McNamara’s dreams were not enough to stop St. John’s from completing a three-peat by winning the WCAC Tournament crown, 66-51, on Feb. 25.
For the Lady Mustang (29-3), the loss was the end of a conference season filled with tons of promise and success by the veteran side.
“They performed like champions today,” Oliver said. “The scoreboard does not reflect what type of team that we have; we are a championship team. Hats off to St. John’s; they are a great team, but I am proud of my girls.”
They entered the tournament as the No. 2 seed and were successful in the quarterfinals following a 72-27 thrashing of No. 7 Archbishop Carroll on Feb. 23.
In their semifinal victory, three players scored in double-figures for McNamara with senior guard Aliyah Matharu scoring a game-high 16 points.
Senior Jakai Brown-Turner added 15 points but was forced to sit large portions of the second half due to foul trouble. Even without their team leader, the Lady Mustangs did not miss a beat as forward Madison Scott took over. The junior was instrumental in all of McNamara’s 18 third quarter points, pushing McNamara’s lead was as high as 11.
Paul VI senior Lizzie Thibodeau hit three consecutive 3-pointers as part of an 11-1 run that brought the Lady Panthers back from a double-digit deficit to only being down three in the dying minutes of the game.
But it would be Scott, who scored 10 points, to smack away a would-be layup by Ashley Owusu for a key block with 53 seconds left to solidify the win for McNamara.
“This was very big,” Scott said. “I just came off of (a foot sprain) injury too so this was a big bounce-back game for me too, and I want to get my teammates the ball and win, and we all want to do the same thing. Today was a big team win and I am so excited for tomorrow.”
Early on against St. John’s, it would be the battle between the senior Brown-Turner against the sophomore Fudd.
The two scorers traded shots back and forth while imposing themselves when guarding each other on defense. Brown-Turner floated a jumper from behind the free throw line and converted it while being fouled by Fudd, setting up a 3-point play. Moments later, Fudd beat the outstretch senior to convert a 3-pointer to end the first half down by two.
Fudd entered the second half continuing her scoring streak, converting shots from all over the court. Her 12 second-quarter points outscored the entire McNamara team.
However, in the final 90 seconds, the Lady Mustangs bounced back, scoring the half’s last six points, including a lopsided jumper by Brown-Turner as time expired, tying the game at 23 heading into the break.
“She would hit all of her shots, and I would follow,” Fudd said about her rival Brown-Turner. “She played really well but I had to make sure that I did not ride the highs or the lows of the game and when the opportunity came, I knew I had the next one and the next one.”
McNamara’s hot streak continued into the second half, expanding into a 15-1 run. Scott heaved a no-look pass to a wide-open Brown-Turner for a 3-point basket, giving the Lady Mustangs an eight-point advantage. St. John’s called a timeout to regroup and began their comeback bid with an 8-0 run of their own.
“We were down eight and what did we do, we went on a run ourselves,” St. John’s Head Coach Jonathan Scribner said. “We talk about this all the time that this is being a game of runs; they are going to have theirs and we are going to have ours and hope ours is longer and a little more often than theirs.”
After only scoring a point in the first two quarters, senior Malu Tshitenge-Mutumbo reemerged to score 12 points in the second half and limited McNamara’s second-chance opportunities with critical rebounds. Even with a reborn effort by St. John’s, Christina McPhail’s buzzer-beating 3-pointer gave McNamara a two-point heading to the final period.
Nevertheless, it would be an expected second half performance by Alex Cowan that gave the edge to the champions. The five-foot-five guard sprung through with 15 second-half points, including a 3-point play midway through the fourth that gave St. John’s a double-digit lead.
Matharu would foul out with two minutes remaining, leaving McNamara without their primary ball-handler in the closing moments of the contest. Once the final whistle blew and St. John’s began its celebration, the Lady Mustangs rushed off the court and headed into the locker room, disappointed at what could have been.
“I felt like we were right where we needed to be outside of the foul trouble,” Oliver said. “We do not get into foul trouble, and we finish that game out.”
While the Lady Mustangs will still compete in tournaments outside the WCAC before saying goodbye to their senior class, Brown-Turner said it is still a hard loss to take. She hopes that her teammates, like Scott, will take over as leaders to lead McNamara back to the title game next season.
“I want them to win a championship, and not just for me,” Brown-Turner said. “I want them to win a championship for McNamara period, so next year, we will be coming back.”