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Bel Air girls basketball 'survives the night' at Joppatowne, with 55-37 win

Feb. 5—By Sam Cohn — scohn@baltsun.com

PUBLISHED:February 5, 2024 at 8:58 p.m.| UPDATED:February 6, 2024 at 12:45 p.m.

No two nights are the same for Bel Air girls basketball.

The strength of the Bobcats is in their flexibility. The defensive-minded team leans heavily on protecting that end of the floor until their offense can get into rhythm. But on down nights for the defense, they seek out top scorers to carry the load.

"Our rally cry all year has been 'Survive the Night,'" Bel Air coach Calvin Skelton said. "That's what we say in all of our huddles. Just survive the night."

In a 55-37 road win over Joppatowne, that's exactly what they had to do. They lived up to a phrase born out of necessity, Skelton said, encapsulating their season with playoffs on the horizon.

In Monday's win, Bel Air's defense held down the fort in the first quarter. The Mariners scored their first point after six minutes of play — their first basket a minute later — and ended the first quarter with just five points. Joppatowne was lucky to be within striking distance, trailing 12-5.

Bel Air's offense opened up in the second quarter, most effective through controlled passes on the break. Like late in the second quarter when senior center Gabby Awuah swatted a layup away. Rachel Taylor corralled the ball, burnt rubber up the sideline and dished a clean pass back to Awuah, who was sprinting up to the other basket for two.

Awuah's 12 points were a team-best. She's a versatile interior southpaw with a dynamic skillset and a soft short jumper, her coach says. Taylor was next with 10 on two 3-pointers.

"Our offense is so helter-skelter, we just play great defense and try to figure it out on offense," Skelton said. "We started punching it in to Gabby and things opened up for us tonight."

Joppatowne, which combined its JV and varsity team because of an injury-inflicted lack of numbers, cut into the deficit in the second half. The Mariners trailed by as many as 21 before cutting it to 12. While they couldn't get over the hump for a comeback, their motor never ran dry.

Junior Taylor Horsey didn't let it fly once in the first half. She banked in three triples in the second, en route to a game-high 16 points.

"When we're down 20, it's like we're down one," Mariners coach Erica Richardson said. "We have no off button, which you can't coach. To me, that's something I can't give them. They want to get better."

If Bel Air is surviving, Richardson is reminding her team that no day is promised.

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Mariners starting center sophomore Samiah Head tore her ACL three games into the season. She'll undergo surgery this week. Starting two-guard junior Celena Watson then tore her meniscus and had to be shut down for the year. "One right after the other," Richardson said.

The 15-year coach allowed her injured stars to open up about their hardship to help motivate the rest of the group. In essence, that if they physically could play, they would. "So if you physically can," Richardson said, "then play for her. ... I think resilience is what I'm talking about. We were down about it. We talked about it. That was the best thing we could have done is to have that conversation."

While Joppatowne lacks in varsity experience, Bel Air returned 10 of 12 players from last year's squad. For Skelton, that trimmed much of the acclimation time. Hovering around the top of the division standings is thanks to a bench full of girls who arrived for day one of practice understanding their defensive rotations and offensive attack plan.

Bel Air typically offers a 10-girl rotation. Surviving any given night is reliant on finding an offensive rhythm and fresh legs. Or until collectively they figure it out. Skelton's team has embraced that approach which has helped endure punches.

"We've grown slowly throughout the season," Skelton said. "But the place we started from was much, much further ahead than it has been in past years. They know what winnings things are, I don't have to list that for them."

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