Annie Kane surveyed the defense and whipped the ball to her left, right into the hands of Marlena Tremba, who was coming open off a screen. Tremba, one of the best three-point shooters in the D.C. area, looked quickly toward the basket, but her defender was there. Another line-drive pass to her left, and the ball was in the hands of Jasmine Whitney, who got a step ahead of her defender and drove down the baseline to the basket for a smooth lay-up. The Paul VI Panthers took a seven-point lead on visiting St. Mary’s Ryken, and eventually won on a buzzer-beater by Ariana Freeman, 55-52.
Not only was the “bing-bing-bing” ball movement the kind of thing that makes coaches smile, but each of the ballhandlers on the play was a Fairfax County resident.
Tremba (Vienna) is a senior three-point specialist who can stop and release her shot so effortlessly it’s as if she’s flicking back a strand of her long, dark hair. She has 65 long-range buckets on the season — second only to W.T. Woodson’s Keara Finnerty — and is bound for William and Mary in the fall.
Whitney (Centreville), a 5-foot-9 freshman, has the reach of a post player but the speed, strength and ball-handling skills to direct a sophisticated, senior-laden offense in the toughest conference in the country.
The team’s all-around star, junior forward Ariana Freeman, lives in Manassas and developed her game growing up in Centreville. She’s bound for big-time college ball at West Virginia University.
As a private school, Paul VI can recruit players from all over the region. But Scott Allen’s collection of local talent is in contrast to other teams whose players travel from the far reaches of D.C., Maryland and Virginia to get to school each day. And he’s happy with that makeup.
“The first thing you’re going to get is a great student,” said Allen of his local players, who in addition to the ones already mentioned, include Josey Swanberg, Mariel Simko, Kayla Meador, Kendall Hunter, Caley Gormley, Marilisa Morales, Kasey Curtis and Lindsey Oblitey. “This is such a densely populated area that offers so many things to help kids get better ... [In Fairfax County] you might be dealing with some of the best-recruited student-athletes in the entire country.”
And Allen’s Panthers are not just any team. Earlier this season, they were undefeated and ranked sixth in the nation by USA Today. They have a streak of six consecutive Virginia independent school state titles. The Paul VI boys team, meanwhile, has beaten some of the best teams in the country this season and currently boasts a No. 2 ranking in The Washington Post’s area poll.
But above all that, the girls’ goal is to win the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference tournament that kicks off this afternoon at Gonzaga in Washington before moving to American University for the semifinals and finals. The Panthers’ first game is Saturday against Holy Cross, a team they defeated in both meetings this season.
This year, the Panthers are packed with seniors, but that’s not the case every year. For example, in 2010-11, the team matched just one senior starter with a pair of freshmen and sophomores. There were growing pains, but the team came together for 20 wins and another state title, providing the foundation for this year’s squad that started 23-0 before a last-second overtime loss to St. John’s on Jan. 29.
“[2010-11] was a team I was most proud of because they weren’t expected to do anything, and they proved a lot of people wrong [winning the state title],” said Allen before the Panthers’ senior night win Feb. 12 against Ryken.
In spite of the shining season, the Panthers have lost three of their last five outings. Three of the games have been decided in the final seconds, including the regular season finale, a 64-60 road loss to St. John’s last Friday.
“We’re playing really good teams,” Allen said. “The [first] St. John’s game had 1,000 people here. It was an awesome game to be a part of. We ran out of time.”
The Cadets feature Lindsay Allen, one of the top teenage basketball players in the country. She made the game-winner that night and a key play that sent the Panthers into the postseason on a losing note.
An undefeated season would have been great. But the Panthers say they’ve been able to regroup.
“I think it made us work stronger together,” Simko said. “We know we’re not the best, so we have to be more focused and more competitive. We have to be more on each other in practice. We never wanted [a loss] to happen, but it’s not going to break our season. We can still redeem ourselves.”
Tremba, who has four games this year with at least five three-pointers, said she’s got a few more left for the playoffs.
“Coach Allen’s motto is ‘all in,’ and that’s because we have nine seniors, and this will be our last chance to get a WCAC championship,” she said.
While the last five games haven’t been perfect for the Panthers, the team is looking forward to the full-strength return of guard Lauren Cox, who broke her thumb early in the season. Cox has been working her way back into form for the last two weeks.
Swanberg, a senior who excelled as a young teenager but found minutes at Paul VI hard to come by after moving to Northern Virginia before high school, said a WCAC championship would be a great sendoff for herself and her senior teammates.
“It’s already the best season I’ve ever had,” Swanberg said. “We’re doing so well. And if that was the way we ended it, if we left our mark on the school and the WCAC, it would be amazing.”