A week before the girls basketball season started in November, Pikesville’s chances for a third straight state championship appeared to walk out the door with their best player, a last-minute transfer who took 19 points per game with her.

The loss hit hard, but coach Michael Dukes and the Panthers immediately began figuring out how to build a championship team with no star power but with a group of girls who played hard, supported each other and easily made adjustments.

The No. 11 Panthers (23-5) lost a few early games against tough opponents but grew with each experience to win the Baltimore County and the Class 1A state championships. Twice in the state playoffs, they overcame deficits of nine or more points.

After the Panthers slipped past Mountain Ridge, 38-33, in the Class 1A state title game March 11, Dukes said this championship felt different from the previous two.

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“It was definitely the most rewarding, because I knew we kinda weren’t looked at as the same team as the previous couple years. We knew we would really have to coach this team up and coach them through it, but they were definitely so receptive of it too. You can talk about having good coaching, but the kids have to buy in as well and, man, did they buy in for sure.”

Pikesville coach Mike Dukes gives his team a few points during a timeout in Monday night's Class 1A regional semifinal victory over Francis Scott Key. The Panthers advanced with a 52-46 victory and face a rematch with Loch Raven on the road in Wednesday night's regional final. The third-seeded Panthers dealt top-seed Loch Raven its only loss of the season three weeks ago.
Pikesville coach Mike Dukes gives his team a few points during a timeout in its Class 1A regional semifinal victory over Francis Scott Key. Dukes had to make adjustments from the first day of practice and it paid off with a third straight state championship. (Katherine Dunn)

Dukes, The Baltimore Banner/VSN 2022-23 Girls Basketball Coach of the Year, is well on his way to building a dynasty at Pikesville, guiding the Panthers to the final four every year since he took over in the 2017-18 season. They’ve also won three county championships.

The Panthers won their first girls basketball regional title in 2018 and their first state title in 2019. They reached the state semifinals in 2020 only to have the state tournament cancelled by COVID-19. The 2020-21 season was cancelled too, but the Panthers immediately rebounded with two more crowns.

The only public school team, girls or boys, to repeat as champs this year, the Panthers became the first girls team to three-peat in Class 1A since Brooklyn Park won its third in 1987 en route to a state-record five in a row. Only three programs across all classifications have won more than three consecutive championships — Brooklyn Park (which closed in 1990), Eleanor Roosevelt and Dunbar.

From the start, Dukes thought he could build a winner on defense and balanced offense. He talked to the players right after Amori Jarrett, who scored 20 points in last year’s state final, transferred.

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“I was just so proud of the way the girls responded. They really listened,” Dukes said. “That next day, we were like we’re not running right to the floor, we need to talk and deal with the elephant in the room and take the opportunity to let the girls talk about how they were feeling about it. The most incredible thing about that talk was all the girls focused on their friendship with Amori. They didn’t focus on the basketball piece. I told them, ‘You can’t let that define your season. We need to go out there and feel we can get it done.’”

The Panthers weren’t an overwhelming offensive team, but they played the stingy defense they needed to win.

Relying mostly on man-to-man, with junior Aliyah Taylor covering the opposition’s top scorer, they held teams to an average of 30 points per game. During the regular season, they gave up more than 35 points six times and lost five, but they won those games in the playoffs.

Dukes always praised the resilience of his players and that never showed more than during their playoff run.

Trailing Loch Raven by nine points in the South Region I championship, Dukes switched to a zone defense that quickly sparked a comeback and a 57-48 win. He did the same to overcome an 11-point deficit and beat Patterson Mill, 44-32 in the state semifinal.

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Senior shooting guard Jayda Mayles, the team’s top scorer with 12 points a game, said Dukes did everything he could to make sure the Panthers were ready for whatever an opponent threw at them.

“He scouted all the teams and prepared us well for each of the games,” Mayles said. “He would go watch the games and tell us what type of offense and defense we needed to play, just the right game plan and it really worked. If we hadn’t switched defenses against Loch Raven, we wouldn’t have won that game.”

In the championship win over first-time state finalist Mountain Ridge, from Allegany County, the Panthers held the Miners to 19 percent shooting from the floor. Defense also played a big role in the regional opener, sparking a 9-2 fourth-quarter run for a 52-46 win over Francis Scott Key.

Every player on the floor contributed defensively — from guards Mayles, Mariah Jones-Bey, Korai Bowen, Bree Taylor, and Amya Moore to forwards Aliyah Taylor, Tykeisha Hill and Darielle Weems— which made up for some rough nights offensively.

“We had some games we could pinpoint the man-to-man was great and then there were other games where we just played one defense.” Dukes said. “It was great how this team just showed versatility and that made me not hesitate to make a switch.”

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Dukes, who is 6-feet-4, was an All-Metro player in high school, helping Southern of Baltimore win the MSA B Conference championship in 1977 and he went on to play at Towson (then Towson State) University, but he didn’t think about coaching until much later. He debuted on the sideline when his daughter Chelsea, 30, started playing in the EDRECO program. He then helped form, and also coached, the Maryland Lady Comets AAU program.

He took over the girls program at Towson Catholic in 2006, but the school closed after his third year. He also spent three years as an assistant coach at St. Frances.

Dukes, who has a 111-20 record at Pikesville, credited assistant coaches Kevin Speaks, Gordon Outlaw, Kevia Elliott with playing a big role in the Panthers’ success.