It only takes one lead to win a basketball game, and Dunbar High girls’ basketball found its lead right around 8:15 p.m. Friday night.

With just under five minutes left in the fourth quarter in the Class 1A state semifinals against Joppatowne, Poets junior Michelle Wright did her work on the inside and led Dunbar to its first lead, 49-47.

Moments later, the forward hit two at the line for the team’s final lead as the east Baltimore school knocked off defending state champ and No. 3 Joppatowne, 62-54, at UMBC’s The RAC, in an exciting state semifinal edition of the VSN/Fox 45 Game of the Week.

“We didn’t quit, we didn’t give up, and we were down at the half, just like against Surrattsville,” Dunbar coach Wardell Selby said.  “We knew it would be a battle because they were defending champs and had pride.  The girls made me look good today.”

Dunbar (19-4 overall) tied the game four times in the third quarter, and another two times in the fourth. Each time, the champion Mariners answered before the Poets finally overtook the Harford County school, and won the fouling-game in the final minutes. 

Sending the Poets to the line was an only choice for the Mariners (24-2), but not the most ideal. Dunbar shot 75-percent from the line, hitting 18 of 24 free-throws and scoring 11 of the 19 fourth-quarter points towards the state finals berth.

“We have been working on our free throws,” Wright laughed.  “Every practice we throw between 25 or 50 free-throws a piece, and it came in handy.”

“We talked about shooting 70 percent all year, and I don’t think we have shot 60 percent all year,” Wardell added with a laugh.  “So today, we shot well and I am super proud of them.”

Wright worked hard on the inside during the entire game, putting up a game-high 26 points and helping cut the Mariner lead from eight points to five by the half.

“I was just pinning my girl down and hopping that my guards would get me the ball,” Wright said of her work with senior teammate Oma-ah Tayong.  “We both believe in teamworkj so we were both a threat to them.”

The other big, inside help came by the skills of Tayong, good for 15 points and 15 boards on the night.

“They just crushed us, and it wasn’t even so much on the lobs, it was the rebounds that we just could match-up,” Joppatowne coach Michael Harris explained.  “The thing that did hurt us is when we did finally got the rebounds and didn’t execute on our outlets.  We missed some opportunities.”

The Mariners broke out to an eight-point lead in the first, seeing three-pointers from senior Zameria Head and junior Lakia Huff, and were able to hold a five-point lead despite being held to just eight-points in the second quarter with 13 turnovers, much to the help of Huff’s outside shooting.

“It would be tough to press them, and we like to press,” Wardell said. “But we had respect for their guards so we backed off and went to man to man. We matched-up and contained [Zameria Jones] pretty good during the early part of the game, and their big girls didn’t score a lot of buckets.”

Huff made it rain in the first half with two baskets from way downtown to lead the Mariners in scoring with eight points in the first 16 minutes of Friday night’s game. She netted another three-pointer to upset a 6-0 run by the Poets in the third quarter.

The Baltimore City school refused to wilt, earning its first title game apperance, completing a run of fourth straight championships from 2000 to 2003. The Poets will play Northern from Garrett County for the state championship, Saturday at 6 p.m. at the RAC. 

Winning the South Region crown, the Poets defeated Southside Academy, Carver Vo-Tech and Surrattsville in a three-game home stretch to gain the state 1A Final Four berth. Joppatowne downed Loch Raven and Western Tech in home playoff games before dismantling 1A North Regional finals’ host Harford Tech for the crown, 69-34, and sealing the team’s fifth tournament appearance

The Mariners’ only loss this season before Friday was against 3A state finalist Aberdeen, dropping to the Eagles by six points. Friday’s loss was only the second time in the last 44 games for the Mariners.

“I am super proud of the way my girls competed,” Harris said. “It didn’t go the way we wanted it to against a big physical Dunbar team that just got the better of us. Go Aberdeen.”

Dunbar looks to erase the memory of last year’s state semifinal defeat to Smithsburg and claim its fifth championship.

“We have been the underdog for so long,” Tayong said, “and we finally get a chance to prove ourselves and we can show that everyone on our team can play.”

Dunbar 62, Joppatowne 54