No. 1 St. Frances pushes past Mount St. Joseph, clinches MIAA A hoops top seed; Moore sparks balanced effort (VIDEO HERE!!)

Mount St. Joseph’s Kendall McMillian attempts a shot as St. Frances’ Rajeir Jones defends the second half of Friday’s key MIAA A Conference/Baltimore Catholic League boys’ basketball contest. The No. 1 Panthers clinched first in the MIAA’s Red Division with a 65-58 decision in front of a standing room crowd in east Baltimore. (photo – Jimmy Fields Sr.)

by Derek Toney

Depth, balanced scoring and unselfishness defined St. Frances Academy boys’ basketball team through its first 34 games. In their 35th, and arguably most important game Friday night, the Panthers’ most important piece may have been realized: Koran Moore.

No. 1 St. Frances defeated third-ranked Mount St. Joseph, 65-58, in a MIAA A Conference/Baltimore Catholic League tilt in front of a standing room audience at Phelps Gym in east Baltimore. Senior guard Elijah Epps and sophomore Jordan Toles each scored 13 points for the Panthers (31-4 overall).

It was a familiar script for the East Chase Street school as four double-digit scorers and contributions from nearly its entire roster helped it clinch the No. 1 seed in the MIAA A’s Red Division. The Panthers (16-2 MIAA A) will host Mount Carmel, the fourth-seed out of the Black Division, in a tournament quarterfinal Tuesday evening.

After three shaky performances, including two losses, St. Frances got a major injection of confidence in its regular season finale Friday.

“We just got that fight and dog in us,” said Toles. “We know not to give up, no matter what happens.”

Toles, a high-flying 6-foot-3 sophomore guard, added five rebounds and a couple of steals. Sophomore point guard Adrian Baldwin orchestrated the Panthers with 11 points, seven assists and seven assists. Senior Kai Royster, junior Bass Diop and freshman Detwan Montague each provided a lift in their time off the bench.

But Moore was the critical piece. Playing his first game in three weeks after “a violation of team rules,” said Myles, the 6-foot-9 senior posted a double-double of 11 points and 13 rebounds Friday.

The burly Moore challenged Mount St. Joseph’s Jalen “Sticks” Smith in the paint. Smith, the reigning VSN Player of the Year, finished with 22 points.

“It’s much easier when Koran is out there. He’s our centerpiece,” said Toles.  “When he’s not out there, it’s like losing a family member.”

“When Koran is focused and locked in, he’s as good as any player in this area,” said St. Frances coach Nick Myles. “Sticks is a McDonald All-American, probably going to play in the NBA, he’s good for a reason. But Koran’s girth and size gives ‘Sticks’ problems.”

Moore, who didn’t play last season, scored five straight points, capped with an offensive board and basket, giving St. Frances a 55-47 advantage with 2 minutes, 26 seconds remaining in regulation. The Gaels (27-4, 15-3 MIAA A), who never led in the final three quarters, pulled to 55-51 after four James Bishop free throws, but, after a St. Frances timeout, Rajeir Jones knocked down a mid-range jumper.

Bishop, who scored the Gaels’ final 14 points, brought the Irvington school to 57-53 with 1:09 left in regulation. St. Frances broke the Gaels’ press, leading to a Toles’ 3-point play. Epps dropped two free throws, putting the Panthers in control at 62-53 with 52.7 seconds to play.

St. Frances never trailed after Baldwin’s 3-point play closed the first quarter. The Panthers opened up a 28-21 advantage late in the first half as Toles converted a steal into a 3-point play following Montague’s rebound and putback.

St. Frances turned over Mount St. Joseph a couple of times in the early stages of the second half, boosting the lead to 34-26 after an Epps’ layup. Smith brought the Gaels within 35-33 with a 3-pointer, but the Panthers answered with a Jones jumper and basket from Diop.

“When you look at the box score you see points from different people at different times,” said Myles. “It’s what we’ve been all year.”

Moore got the final stanza going for St. Frances with a basket for a 44-39 advantage. Moore scored seven points in the final quarter, while Smith, who will play for the University of Maryland next season, had only a basket.

“He’s a big body,” said Smith, who combined with Bishop to score 29 of St. Joe’s 34 second half points. “It’s hard to stop them once he gets deep in the paint.

Our shots weren’t falling and made a lot of bad decisions, had a lot of turnovers and missed a lot of free throws. They (St. Frances) capitalized.”

The loss snapped Mount St. Joseph’s 19-game win streak (longest in the area this season). The Gaels will host McDonogh School in  Tuesday’s MIAA A quarterfinals. Mount St. Joseph finished second (11-3) to St. Frances (13-1) in the BCL standings.

Myles said Moore’s absence “took everybody out of their natural r0les.” The Panthers lost back-to-back decisions – last Friday at Loyola Blakefield and Monday to St. Vincent Pallotti – for the first time this season. Wednesday, St. Frances trailed by 18 points in the first quarter before rallying for victory over Glenelg Country School.

St. Frances believes everything’s back in place for a run at the MIAA A and Baltimore Catholic League crowns.

Senior center Koran Moore, playing his first game in three weeks, was impressive for St. Frances Friday. The 6-foot-9 post had 11 points and 13 rebounds.

“The regular season was great, it met our expectations,” said Myles, whose team had a losing mark last season. “All that’s out of the window, everybody’s 0-0.”

No. 1 St. Frances Academy 65, No. 3 Mount St. Joseph 58

Mount St. Joseph – Bishop 25, Smith 22, Myers 5, McMillan 4, McDonald 2. Totals 17 15-23 58.

St. Frances – Epps 13, Toles 13, Baldwin 11, Moore 13, Royster 5, Diop 4, Jones 4, Montague 4. Totals 20 24-26 65.

Mount St. Joseph 12 12 15 19 – 58

St. Frances 14 14 14 23 – 65