Third-ranked Seton Keough ended St. Mary's unlikely run through the Interscholastic Athletic Association of Maryland A Conference tournament yesterday but not without a battle from the feisty Saints.
Jackie Valderas hit six free throws in the waning minutes to help the defending champion Gators (23-4) hold off the Saints and take a 43-36 semifinal victory.
In the first two rounds of the tournament, the unranked Saints (10-17) dismissed No. 19 Institute of Notre Dame, 35-27, and No. 13 John Carroll, 48-38.
Yesterday, they were looking for another upset and were within three points with just over two minutes to play.
"During the playoffs, we all just got fired up," said Saints guard Lauren Bonanni, who scored 11. "We played well together, and we wanted to end this week on a good note. Seton Keough's really tough defensively, and we just couldn't put them in at the end."
The Gators, unbeaten against IAAM teams this season, will face No. 5 St. Frances in tomorrow's 6 p.m. title game at Loyola College's Reitz Arena.
A victory would give the Gators their fourth straight tournament title after winning last year's inaugural IAAM crown and the past two Catholic League finals in 1998 and '99.
Yesterday, the host Gators ran up a 27-11 lead on Gen Old's 16-footer to open the second half, but they could not put the Saints away. Seton Keough turned the ball over 19 times and struggled to find openings in the Saints' man-to-man defense.
Late in the third quarter, Mary Key sparked the Saints' offense with a four-point play that followed a Bonanni three-pointer. Key's 18-footer cut the Gators' lead to 33-30 early in the fourth.
Kelly Hammond hit another 18-footer with 2:25 left to cut the lead back to three, 39-36, but the Saints missed their last four shots.
"St. Mary's always gives us trouble," said Valderas. "They know our strong points, they did a good job on Keisha [Blackwell], and they did a good job on me. I didn't get the ball much in the post."
Valderas, a 6-foot-1 center, scored eight of the Gators' 10 fourth-quarter points - six from the free-throw line. Each time the Saints pulled within three, the Gators went inside to Valderas, who hit the shot or was fouled and nailed the free throws.
The junior was 8-for-8 from the foul line and finished with 16 points and eight rebounds.
"She ought to be the most valuable player in this league," said St. Mary's coach Harry Dobson. "She's responsible for as good as Keough is. She's improved so much over last year. They used to kill you from outside last year. Now they kill you both ways."