Howard’s journey to the girls basketball Class 3A state championship started three years ago when the Lions rolled undefeated into the semifinals only to have COVID-19 cancel the tournament.
Friday night, the No. 5 Lions completed the rocky road to the title with a 64-52 victory over defending champion and No. 3 Poly at Xfinity Center at the University of Maryland. Senior guards Samiyah Nasir and Gabby Kennerly, both four-year players, combined for 35 points and sophomore forward Meghan Yarnevich scored 25.
“It’s still pretty surreal. I feel like I’m in a dream right now,” said Nasir, who scored 20, including four 3-pointers. “I’m just so proud of our growth as a team, how we worked together. We truly just trusted the process and played our game and it really showed tonight.”
The Howard County champion Lions (25-1 overall) and Baltimore City champion Poly (24-3) took similar routes to the state. It just took Howard a year longer to get there. Both were undefeated heading to the 2020 semifinals although Howard was in 4A, both sat out the cancelled 2021 season and both reached the title game the past two years, each with a championship.
Kennerly said the Lions, who won their first state title since 1994, took a lot away from that loss to the Engineers.
“Last year, I think we were a little under-experienced,” she said, “and credit to coach (Scott) Robinson. This year, he put together a great schedule for us to come out and play against some great teams — Pallotti, Buena Vista (Cal.), all those great teams where we faced a lot of adversity, so when we got to this point, I think we were ready and experienced and we got to play our game.”
Nasir and 6-foot-1 Yarnevich got the Lions off to a hot start and scored all 29 of Howard’s first-half points. The Engineers had only one lead, 6-5, but Nasir wiped that out with three 3-pointers and a layup in her own 11-3 run that gave the Lions a 16-8 lead with 1 minute, 28 seconds to go in the first quarter.
Poly never settled into an offensive rhythm and senior forward Trinity Massenburg said that had a lot to do with defense.
“In the beginning,” she said, “we were playing not like ourselves and not active on defense, kind of just letting them do what they want to do and on offense, we weren’t passing the ball as much and making good shot decisions, so that kind of messed us up.”
The Engineers were never far out of it though and they cut the lead to two on senior guard Taylor Addison’s short jumper with 4:57 to go in the first half, but Yarnevich answered with a driving layup to start a 10-0 run capped by another Nasir 3-pointer.
After halftime, Poly coach Kendall Peace-Able switched from zone to man-to-man defense and that forced an early turnover to spark a short run.
Addison scored three times and a 15-footer from senior guard Brianna Johnson cut Howard’s lead to 31-29 midway through the third quarter.
Last season, Poly’s match-up zone gave the Lions a lot of trouble, fueling their 60-37 win, and the Lions expected to see it again.
“We really practiced a lot against the match-up,” Robinson said, “and then in the third quarter — Kendall’s a great coach — she switched to a really pressure man-to-man and we just talked about attacking the basket … and we tried to spread the court and go by with the dribble and that’s what I think that’s what the girls, to their credit, did very effectively.”
Then, the fouls started piling up for the Engineers and the Lions hit eight of 10 to help take a 41-34 lead into the final quarter.
After Kennerly drove for a layup to open the final quarter, Poly senior guard Da’Brya Clark scored twice to cut the lead to 43-38. Nasir then hit a follow shot and Yarnevich found Kennerly open under the basket for a layup. The Engineers wouldn’t get closer.
Clark led the Engineers with 12 points and senior forward Riley Holliday scored 10. Massenburg had six points and 10 rebounds.
Although they stuck close to the Lions, Howard found openings no matter what defense Poly threw at them.
“The only people we can get frustrated with is ourselves for not handling our defensive assignments,” Addison said of coming close but not being able to get the lead. “We were doing everything we were supposed to do on offense, we’re not doing what we need to do.”
Peace-Able said she felt free throws made the difference. Howard hit 24 of 32 while the Engineers shot 14.
“I don’t want anybody to feel I’m taking a shot in any sort of way,” she said. “I’ll always say the same thing I have said consistently about the state tournament. When you get a certain complexion of officials all throughout the year and then you come up to different random officials in the state tournament, whistles are quicker, things are different. It changes how the game is played, so it’s kinda sometimes the luck of the draw. Things that not considered fouls at home are considered fouls and you’ve go to roll with it.”
CLASS 3A STATE CHAMPIONSHIP
NO. 5 HOWARD 64, NO. 3 POLY 52
Poly 12 9 13 18 — 52
Howard 16 13 12 23 — 64
Poly — Taylor Addison 8, Da’Brya Clark 12, Brianna Johnson 5, Trinity Massenburg 6, Mickelle Lowry 6, Riley Holliday 10, Ariana Makumi 2, Amelia Overton 3. Totals: 22 6-14 52.
Howard — Samiyah Nasir 20, Jenna Vetter 4, Gabby Kennerly 15, Alana Harrison 1, Meghan Yarnevich 14. Totals: 17 24-32 64.