Trailing by one point with seconds remaining yesterday at Loyola College's Reitz Arena, the seventh-ranked St. Mary's Saints seemed ready to steal a victory from fourth-ranked St. Frances.
But with one well-anticipated swipe of the hand, Panthers guard Jakia Ervin stole it right back.
The 5-foot-6 junior picked off an inbounds pass and took it the length of the floor for a three-point play, sealing the Panthers' 43-39 Catholic League victory.
"I knew we couldn't let them shoot," said Ervin. "I had a feeling about what they were going to do, and I just went for it. I got lucky, I guess."
But yesterday's victory was more than luck for the defending league tournament champions. The difference was rebounding, where the taller and more athletic Panthers held an advantage.
Time and again, they had second and third shots at the basket, often holding the Saints to a single shot. All told, St. Frances (3-1) took 68 shots to the Saints' 36.
"Definitely, that was the difference," said St. Mary's coach Harry Dobson, whose young team, which due to the graduation of second-team All-Metro Bridget Smith has tried several point guards, was faced with a perplexing dilemma. "On the one hand we've got to get enough guards in there to bring up the ball. On the other, we have to get enough big girls in there to get the rebounds."
The balancing act worked for much of the game, with the Saints (2-3) leading the majority of the way until late in the third quarter. But once Panthers center Kortni Webb (16 points) sank a 12-footer at the end of the third quarter to tie the game at 31, St. Frances never looked back.
Coach Jerome Shelton, whose team had looked shaky at times during the early season, credited the Panthers' aggressive rebounding.
"I think we had a little more energy going on the boards today," said Shelton. "In our first three games we emphasized [rebounding] but we weren't going to the boards aggressively.
"One of the things I said in the pre-game was 'No second shots,' and we did a really good job of that today."
Still, St. Mary's -- playing its "best game of the season," according to Dobson -- was close until the final seconds, getting plenty of offense from forward Annetta Davis (16 points) and guard Kris Miller (nine), and taking advantage of St. Frances' 19 percent field-goal shooting.
The Saints also limited leading scorer Melba Chambers -- a dominating 5-11 forward who averaged more than 21 points a game last season -- to two field goals and seven points.
For a team that has had its share of troubles so far, St. Mary's performance was a welcome sight for Dobson.
"We played as well as we've played all season," he said. "If we continue like this we'll have no problems."
Shelton, whose team lost twice to St. Mary's before defeating them in the championship game, was pleased.
"They got the first hit on us last year, so it's really nice to get an early win against them," said Shelton, whose team plays St. Mary's in Annapolis on Jan. 20. "This will definitely help our confidence down the road."