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Southern comeback stuns Catoctin, 55-52; Rams play for title Saturday

Mar. 14—FREDERICK — Defense wins championships, or at least sends you to one.

Led by a stout defense, Southern returns to the Class 1A state title game for the first time since 2018 after the Rams (23-3) held off Catoctin 55-52 in the state semifinals Wednesday at Gov. Thomas Johnson High School.

"Just unbelievably proud of the girls," Southern head coach Landon Todd said. "I don't know how many games we've had that played out that way. Outside of our loss to Mountain Ridge. That's been the result every single time."

The Cougars (23-4) were without their leading scorer Taylor Smith, who averages 12 points a game, but was injured in the quarterfinal and did not play.

Grace Williams stepped up, scoring six points during Catoctin's 9-2 run to open the evening.

She finished with 12 points, a steal and a block.

Southern responded with its own 9-2 run, taking a 12-11 lead on an Emelee Parks 3-pointer in the left corner.

After the Cougars retook the lead, Gabbi Berry inbounded to Parks, who hit another triple, giving Southern a 15-14 lead after one quarter.

"They've proven time and time again, they know how to win games like this," Todd said. "At a certain point, you just gotta take a step back and trust that these girls have been here before, they know how to come out on top."

The story of the second and third quarters was Southern's struggles from the field.

The Rams made six field goals in the first quarter, but combined for five over the next two, only making one in the third quarter.

"A ton of credit to Catoctin, they're so good at moving their feet," Todd said. "When the ball gets in the lane, they body up, they wall up and don't foul."

At halftime, the Rams shot 10 of 24 (42%) from the field and 5 of 11 (45%) from deep.

Despite seemingly every shot in the second and third quarters failing to find the bottom of the net, Southern's defense kept it within two possessions for most of the 16 minutes.

Catoctin led for nearly the entire second quarter, but the Rams kept the deficit within five or six points.

Leading 28-26 with less than 30 seconds left in the first half, the Cougars were called for a charge.

Gabby Stem found Parks at the top of the key who buried a 3-pointer at the buzzer to give the Rams a 29-28 halftime lead.

"We were kinda deflated, we were demoralized," Todd said. "To see that three fall at the end of the half, I think they were able to come in with a little reassurance."

It was a similar story in the third quarter. Catoctin led the entire eight minutes, but Southern kept it within two possessions.

With 2.9 seconds remaining in the third, Kelsey Ward drew a foul and hit a free throw, cutting the Rams' deficit to 37-36 heading into the fourth.

Trailing 39-36 early in the fourth, Jayden Weaver hit arguably the two biggest shots of her career so far.

The freshman knocked down back-to-back triples from the right wing, giving Southern a 42-39 lead with 5:44 remaining.

"I think that was huge, not just for the team, but for Jayden," Todd said. "They had a lid on the basket the whole game, she couldn't see it fall. She finally hits one, next possession they find her, she hits another one. Finally, the lid comes off the basket."

Weaver scored a career-high 26 points including 12 in the fourth quarter. She also recorded a pair of steals.

Brooke Williams responded, scoring an and-one layup to give the Cougars a 45-44 advantage with 3:26 to go.

"That's a perfect opportunity to panic, go get a bad shot," Todd said. "They didn't, they kept their head, possession by possession (and) fought back."

Williams led the Cougars with 18 points, scoring 15 after halftime. She also recorded three assists, two steals and a block.

Catoctin held a one-possession lead for the next couple minutes.

With less than 30 seconds remaining, the Rams defense recorded its biggest sequence of the season.

Carly Wilt found Weaver who split the defense for a layup.

"I just knew we needed a bucket," Weaver said. "If we wanted to win, if we wanted to go to states."

On the ensuing inbound, Parks recorded a steal and Wilt hit a layup, putting Southern ahead 55-52 with 7.4 seconds to go.

"I knew I was close all game," Parks said of several near-steals forced earlier. "I know that one meant more than anything."

Parks scored 12 points with six assists and three steals.

Southern clinched a spot in the Class 1A title game for the first time since 2018. The Rams will chase their fifth state title in school history.

Southern does not have a senior and has five freshmen on the varsity roster. Todd discussed how special it is for a team this young to go on the run they have.

"To be at this point, not only is it special, it makes no sense," Todd said. "As a coaching staff, you're gonna ride it as long as you can. Knowing that if it doesn't pan out the way we hope, we're gonna go after it next year."

Southern will play at the Xfinity Center against the three-time reigning state champion Pikesville (22-3) on Saturday at 11 a.m.

"It would be a realization of what we talked about coming into the season," Todd said of a potential state title. "Pikesville's going for four in a row. We want to dethrone them, we want to win four in a row. We want to win it all and keep winning after we win this one."

Jordan Kendall is a Sports Writer for the Cumberland Times-News. Email him with scores and story suggestions at jkendall@times-news.com.