St. Frances Academy boys’ basketball coach Mark Karcher has been impressed with how his relatively young squad has performed in the early weeks of the season. Now, Karcher will see how his squad responds with being No. 1.

The No. 2 Panthers laid claim to the area’s No. 1 ranking, knocking off top-ranked City College, 78-66, before a standing-room only audience on Chase Street Saturday evening. Senior point guard R.J. Williams led all scorers with 26 points for St. Frances and had nine assists, and junior forward Shakir Brown added 18.

The east Baltimore private school led by as many as 17 points en route to victory in the penultimate game of the season so far. With only Greg Lewis and Williams back from last season’s starting lineup, St. Frances (6-0 overall) hasn’t missed a beat with a host of new faces.

“Coach [Mark Karcher] told us to come out and play hard, we can’t have someone come into our house and beat us,” said Williams. “We had to keep the intensity up and show everyone who’s the real No. 1.”

Williams, a 5-foot-9 dynamo, once again left little doubt he’s the area’s best point guard, dictating the pace with his ballhandling and cagey scoring. The Panthers were able to answer every challenge by the two-time defending Class 2A state champion Knights Saturday.

“R.J. was sensational, he controlled it like a point guard should,” said City coach Mike Daniel. “I think we got caught up in the run-and-gun, and it worked against us.”

University of Maryland-bound guard Nick Faust led City with 22 points, and Mike Cheatham added 17.

Trailing by 11 points in the opening half, City (4-1) was within 41-39 in the third quarter after Faust hit a tough jumper against Panthers guard Miles Code. St. Frances replied with an 11-4 run for a 52-43 advantage with five different players scoring.

The Panthers pushed their advantage to 59-47 with Brown hitting a three-pointer off a pass from Code, and Williams making a steal and taking it in for a layup. The emergence of Brown and junior Eddie Tarver after being reserves a year ago as well as steady bench play from Code, a transfer from St. Paul’s School, has been vital to St. Frances’ early success.

“I’ve been working hard at practice and working out a lot with Coach Bullock [Assistant Kelvin],” said Brown, 6-foot-3. “A lot of things have been happening for me. Big players make big plays in big games.”

“He has a good skill set; he understands the game,” said Karcher. “Once he puts it all together, he’ll be a good player.”

sean mosley and jordan williamsSt. Frances scored eight straight points, including a basket and two free throws from Brown, for a 23-15 advantage. Brown advanced the lead to double digits at 35-25 in the second on a jumper, and followed with a basket over Faust for the Panthers’ largest lead of the half, 37-26.

City was within a basket in the third, but it was an uphill battle most of the evening. The Knights know their performance in their biggest game to date left much to be desired.

“If we don’t play smart and together, we got problems,” said Daniel.

“We really didn’t play together as a team. There was too much individual play, including myself,” said Faust, who had future Maryland teammates Sean Mosley, a St. Frances grad, and Jordan Williams among the huge crowd. “We have to take this lesson as a team and bounce back on Tuesday.”

It will be another packed house Tuesday as City hosts No. 3 Patterson in a key Baltimore City Division I showdown. St. Frances hosts Friendship Collegiate from the District Monday, then break for the holiday.

The Panthers got their Christmas present Saturday night.

“It’s a good win for the school and for the younger kids to get some energy under them,” said Karcher, whose team returns to MIAA A/Baltimore Catholic League play against rival and No. 4 Mount St. Joseph Jan. 4. “R.J. and Greg know what to expect.

We kept our poise tonight; City like all good teams was going to make a run. What I like is when City made its run, everybody was ready and did what they supposed to do.”