WASHINGTON – Of the many intriguing matchups featured in the 11th Annual National Title IX Holiday Invitational Classic, the showdown between two elite local high school girls basketball programs in Riverdale Baptist and St. Vincent Pallotti was a major draw for collegiate coaches, fans and other high school athletes.
The afternoon began one-sided in favor of Pallotti but turned into a back-and-forth affair once Riverdale caught fire in the second quarter. The contest remained relatively close, but the clutch free-throw shooting of Eniya Russell and the timely playmaking of Jania Hall enabled the Panthers to pull away late for the narrow win, 62-54, over the Crusaders in the Title IX Classic at the D.C. Armory on Dec. 28.
Russell recorded 16 points, nine rebounds and four assists while Hall also scored 16 and had four rebounds to help Pallotti take down one of Maryland’s top-ranked teams.
“They (Riverdale Baptist) got some easy looks on us on a couple of different runs, but we were up to the challenge, I think we knew we could play with them,” said Head Coach Joe Matthews.
When the buzzer sounded, the Pallotti bench celebrated as if they had just won a playoff match, which showed the game’s magnitude though it was nonconference action.
“I mean, it’s Riverdale. We think it’s the best team in the DMV, so when you’re going up against the best, and you can compete with them, let alone win, it’s going to be a good day for you,” added Matthews, who’s in his second year with Pallotti. “It’s a great team. I have a lot of respect for their program and their coaching.”
Solid half-court defense and efficiency in transition catapulted Pallotti to a 17-3 lead with just 2:46 left in the first. The Crusaders responded and picked up the tempo to end the period on an 8-2 run behind nine first-quarter points from forward Synia Johnson, reducing her team’s deficit to 19-11 entering the second.
The Crusaders knocked down a triple to tie the game, 22-22, at the 2:45 mark in the second quarter and took their first lead of the afternoon off a Kaylah Ivey layup with two minutes left in the first half, completing a 16-point turnaround. Both teams traded a few more baskets to bring the score to 27-26 at the half, as Riverdale Baptist held the slim lead.
The third quarter saw several lead changes as Hall paced Pallotti on the offensive end of the floor. For Riverdale Baptist, Ivey and Johnson continued to facilitate to keep the game close. Entering the fourth, Pallotti led by only one point.
As time drew to a close, the game grew more physical as both squads sent each other to the free-throw line after reaching the bonus within the last two minutes. Pallotti consistently knocked down its free throws to maintain a narrow lead. The Panthers were up by four points with 1:25 left when guard Vashae Rideout sank a pivotal 3-pointer from the left wing to give her team the seven-point advantage.
On the following possession, Riverdale Baptist hit a free throw and missed the next attempt, but Paris McBride pulled in an offensive board to give her team another shot to close the deficit as time was running out. But when the senior guard tried to dribble out to the corner, she tripped and fell and lost the ball. The game official ruled the play out-of-bounds as Pallotti regained possession with just under a minute to go.
Riverdale Baptist Head Coach Mike Bozeman was irate, arguing the call should have been a foul because his player tripped. He continued to argue that it was unfair his girls did not get the “trip call,” and threw his towel in the direction of the official out of anger, prompting an automatic ejection.
Russell drilled the technical free throws to seal the 62-54 win for Pallotti (10-2).
Bozeman said that he was under the impression that the referees were going to call trip-ups (when one player trips an opposing player) as fouls. However, the third-year head coach took responsibility for his actions late in the game.
“At no point should I have lost my composure in that manner. I teach my kids not to. But again, I’m human, and I’ll grow from this,” Bozeman said. “This is a detour from our goal, so now to get back on course, we got to work extra hard. It’s not impossible, we still gotta good group.”
Johnson led the Crusaders with a game-high 19 points. For Pallotti, Rideout chipped in with 12 points, four boards and three assists.
Late-game offensive discipline coupled with physical defense were the keys to pulling away late in the fourth, Matthews said, crediting Hall, Russell and Vashae Rideout with stepping up late to help the Panthers notch the hard-fought victory.
“We all knew that this was a big game coming in, and our confidence, it was high the whole game,” Hall said. “We were very confident that we could win this game, and we just kept the intensity up.”
In the bracket championship game on Dec. 30, Pallotti lost 55-43 to Newark High School of Ohio.