BUCKEYSTOWN — St. John’s Catholic Prep’s girls basketball team had just given up yet another fast-break layup, and this one left the Vikings trailing by 12 with six seconds left in the second quarter.
It would’ve made perfect sense for the Vikings to trudge off the court with disappointing looks on their faces at halftime, but they didn’t.
Instead, the Vikings bolted toward the locker room all smiles, thanks to a buzzer-beating, half-court shot that St. John’s sophomore Jalyn McNeill had just nailed.
Inspired by McNeill’s shot and — at the suggestion of senior Kayla Cooper — scrapping their press to focus on half-court defense in the second half, the Vikings turned their double-digit deficit into a double-digit lead en route to a 69-56 win over St. James on Friday.
St. John’s improved to 11-4. So far this season, the Vikings have shown a penchant for second-half surges, and this one got a premature start from McNeill’s last-second shot in the second quarter.
“That definitely woke us up and gave us more energy,” Cooper said. “We were all like, ‘Yeah, let’s use this as our energy to make us wake up.’”
For a team that’s been stricken by the flu recently, it was fitting that McNeill — a sophomore who has been battling that very sickness — provided a spark. She hadn’t hit a shot like that in a game since she was a little kid.
“It was electric,” McNeill said. “I just looked up at the clock and saw five seconds, saw two defenders and I thought, ‘I’ve got to get open real quick,’ and I just let it fly.’”
That was one of three 3-pointers McNeill hit on Friday, when she finished with nine points.
“J is just going to be an incredible force in the next two years in this area and the DMV,” first-year St. John’s coach Maddie McConnell said. “She’s growing with each and every game and taking on responsibility more. She’s budding. I always forget she’s a sophomore when I look at her.”
As inspirational as her shot was, McNeill — like McConnell — thought the Vikings’ comeback hinged heavily on Cooper’s insightful suggestion to make a defensive switch to a half-court man-to-man. McConnell took Cooper’s advice, which might’ve been just as valuable as the senior’s team-high 26 points.
McConnell, who used to coach at St. John’s College in Washington and for Pallotti’s boys team, prefers an aggressive defense, and the Vikings have used their press to wear down opponents.
“We get teams tired by the fourth quarter,” senior Sarah Yoda said. “That’s the main thing we focus on.”
But on Friday, St. James exploited this approach to beat the Vikings down the court for a slew of fast-break buckets in the first half.
“This team was pretty athletic,” Cooper said.
Switching to a half-court man didn’t produce an immediate transformation.
“The first few possessions when we were running half-court man, we were a little off,” McConnell said. “But they were getting back in time, so I kept it in. I think it changed the game for them.”
By the end of the third quarter, the Vikings held a 50-47 lead. After St. James tied the game at 50, St. John’s went on a 17-0 run to take command.
Jasmine Huskey hit a pair of 3s during that stretch, and Cooper worked the high post and hit a putback to score six.
Cooper spent a lot of the game darting to the high post, an approach that allowed the Vikings to eschew jumpers for shots closer to the hoop.
This approach isn’t always an option for the Albany-bound senior because the Vikings rarely face zone defenses against IAAM opponents.
“I was talking to her about the timing of our high post,” McConnell said. “And I think once she started to take those suggestions, she kicked up at the appropriate time, and then you’re able to run a successful high-low.”
Cooper and fellow senior Sarah Yoda also helped the Vikings crash the boards hard on both ends of the floor, creating second-chance shots for themselves and denying them for the Saints.
“Our bigs played amazing down there,” McNeill said.
One of Huskey’s 3-pointers in the fourth quarter came after Yoda soared toward the hoop to grab an offensive rebound.
Yoda also helped spur St. John’s defense.
“She’s kind of like a silent ninja,” McConnell said. “She comes out of nowhere and just steals the ball from you.”
Lindsey Thweatt had nine points for St. John’s.