Since the moment she stepped on the McDonogh court in the fall, Autumn Fleary has not played like a freshman, so her teammates were not surprised when she hit big shots down the stretch to seal a second straight IAAM A Conference basketball championship for the No. 1 Eagles Monday night.
Fleary scored the game winner on a driving layup that resulted in a three-point play with 6.8 seconds left to push the Eagles past No. 2 St. Frances, 50-47, at Harford Community College’s APG Federal Credit Union Arena in Bel Air.
In the final minute, the 5-foot-8 point guard scored six of her 17 points. She hit four of five free throws during that stretch.
“She’s money when it comes to that. She’s clutch,” Eagles senior guard Makaela Quimby said. “You would think she’s a fifth-year senior. Her IQ is way beyond her class. She’s extremely physical, extremely aggressive. She’s a very special kid.”
St. Frances coach Jerome Shelton said while everybody’s quick with the ball at the end of the game, Fleary’s performance was impressive.
“She may be quicker than most,” he said. “As a freshman, to take on that level of responsibility and doing says a lot about who she is as a player.”
The Eagles (23-2) would need something special to beat the Panthers (23-4) for their fifth A Conference title in 10 years. This is the fifth time the two have played for the title in the past seven seasons and it’s developed into a rivalry.
This winter, they split their regular-season meetings and the combined point differential was just four points in McDonogh’s favor, giving the Eagles the top seed. Neither lost to another Baltimore-area team all season.
In the third quarter after McDonogh’s eight-point lead evaporated, the Eagles kept their composure and fought their way back. In addition to Fleary’s contribution, their three starting seniors — Quimby, guard Paris Locke and forward Anaiah Jenkins — combined for 25 points.
“This is a really special team,” said coach Brad Rees, whose Eagles started the season at No. 1, lost the top spot with the loss to St. Frances and got it back after they avenged that loss two weeks ago.
“I’ve been doing this a long time [and] on the court, off the court, our senior leadership has been phenomenal. I’m very proud of this group. It would have been heart-wrenching not to win this one. It’s really hard because you enter a season and if you don’t win the championship, it’s a disappointment and these kids, I think, appreciated that and fought to the end. They never stopped.”
The Panthers, who have won 13 A Conference titles, opened the fourth quarter with seven straight ponits to take their first lead since early in the second. Senior guard Kameryn Dorsey hit a follow shot and, after an Eagles turnover, assisted Zoe Osby with a terrific pass for a layup and a 38-35 lead with 5:01 remaining in the game.
The Eagles chipped at the lead although Dorsey’s short baseline jumper with 1:49 left had the Panthers ahead, 45-39.
Quimby sparked the final 11-2 run with a three-point play before Fleary hit two free throws with 54 seconds left to pull the Eagles within 45-44. Fleary then grabbed a steal and tied the game with another free throw with 28 seconds to go.
“I was just thinking execute, make the shots,” Fleary said. “I practice those shots, so it just all came down to execution and my teammates encouraged me throughout the whole game.”
St. Frances senior guard Kimmya Hicks, who scored 18, hit an off-balance runner as she fell down to give the Panthers back the lead with 18.5 seconds left.
After McDonogh took a timeout, Fleary brought the ball to the top of the key, took a quick step past her defender and drove around the left side for the layup. The ensuing free throw gave the Eagles the lead for good, 48-47, because the Panthers turned the ball over and were forced to foul Quimby who hit both free throws with four seconds left.
“We just had to stay focused,” Locke said. “St. Frances is a great team to beat and they got on a little run, but we stay focused and remember who we are and that’s McDonogh basketball. This win is great. I love this group of girls. We’re like family.”
Like the Eagles, the Panthers also played a strong all-around game. Hicks’s defense contained Quimby, a long-range ace who hit a 22-footer in the second quarter but didn’t sink another 3-pointer. Senior forward Ande’a Cherisier had nine points.
“We did have a good season,” Shelton said. “I came into this season with this level of expectation and they met my expectations right up to this game. We have seven freshmen on this team and a lot of them got on the floor today which is really good so they can soak in the atmosphere. We expect to be back here next year. You like to learn from victory, but sometimes you have to learn from defeat.”
IAAM A CONFERENCE CHAMPIONSHIP
(At APGFCU Arena, Harford Community College)
NO. 1 MCDONOGH 50, NO. 2 ST. FRANCES 47
St. Frances 9 7 15 7 — 47
McDonogh 8 15 12 15 — 50
St. Frances — Zoe Osby 7, Sydney Sutton 2, Kameryn Dorsey 7, Kimmya Hicks 18, Dahni Suggs 5, Ande’a Cherisier 9. Totals: 18 7-15 47.
McDonogh — Autumn Fleary 17, Ava McKennie 2, Paris Locke 7, Anaiah Jenkins 9, Mikaela Quimby 9, Kennedy Umeh 6. Totals: 15 18-27 50.