ALEXANDRIA — St. Katharine Drexel Prep freshman guard Emmia Johnson sported her No. 4 jersey on Wednesday in the biggest game of her young high school career.

She would have been just as proud wearing a shirt with the #BlackGirlMagic hashtag on it on this banner day at Rapides Coliseum. 

Johnson knew just how much the day meant to all the African-American girls from New Orleans who'd ever walked the halls of her school and St. Mary's Academy.

It's why she found herself rooting for her rival on Wednesday, the final day of Black History Month.

"I wanted St. Mary's to win," she said. "This black school is coming up. That black school is coming up. That's black excellence. That's what I want. I want that rivalry. I want that tension. I want that to be for my state championship."

Johnson got her wish.

St. Mary's beat Riverside in one semifinal. St. Katharine Drexel took care of St. Thomas Aquinas in the other, setting up a Saturday showdown between the two predominantly black girls' Catholic schools.

"This is big for the city," said long-time St. Mary's coach Keith Haywood, who earned his 650th career victory. 

The only thing that could possibly make Saturday's championship game better is if it happened in the Big Easy, somewhere halfway between New Orleans East and Uptown, where the two schools are located.

St. Mary's squeezes by Riverside 

St. Katharine Drexels uses quickness to beat St. Thomas Aquinas

Instead, it will be in Alexandria, some 200 miles away in a place neither of these teams were expected to be.

Prep, with no juniors or seniors on its roster, was supposed to be too young.

St. Mary's, with a losing record, didn't seem to be consistent enough during the season to make it.

And based on the LHSAA power rankings, both were underdogs Wednesday to higher-seeded Riverside and St. Thomas Aquinas.

But if you know anything about these two schools, you know beating the odds is nothing new.

It's what both schools have managed to do in their rich, but sometimes rough, 234 combined years of existence.

"We had been struggling financially to keep everything together, so this is big," Prep coach Terry Wilson said.

In fact, it was just five years ago that St. Katharine Drexel Prep (called Xavier Prep at the time) was supposed to be shutting its doors for good because the school didn't have a "sustainable financial future."

Xavier Prep alums stepped up and kept the school open, and renamed it St. Katharine Drexel Prep. That just so happened to be the same year the "Black Girl Magic" movement started to celebrate qualities like perseverance.  

So who could blame Sholian Reed Freeman, a 1994 Xavier Prep grad, for beaming with pride Wednesday? Her daughter, Daialone Freeman, played a key part in Prep's victory, going a perfect 4-for-4 from the floor.

"Its' a wonderful feeling," Freeman said." As a parent, it means so much to me and my daughter. It's a legacy and it builds the girls' self-esteem. I heard some of the girls talking and they were upset because no one knows what SKDP is since they changed the name. So this is their moment to really put their name out there. This means so much to the girls. They have worked so hard for this."

St. Mary's had its issues as well. The school's enrollment dwindled after Hurricane Katrina.

St. Mary's enrollment, around 800 students in grades 8-12 before Katrina, is now down to about 150.

The school is back in the State Tournament for the first time in 17 years and seeking its second title and first since 1998. 

"We knew eventually we would back," Haywood said.  

That wasn't all Katrina did.

Since Xavier Prep didn't flood in the storm, students from St. Mary's and St. Augustine attended school at Prep as the three schools temporary consolidated to form a school called the MAX (short for Mary's, Augustine, and Xavier.)

On Saturday, two of the schools will be back in the same building again.

Only this time, a state title is at stake.

But for those who attended St. Mary's or Prep, there's plenty to celebrate before Saturday even gets here. 

Follow Rod Walker on Twitter, @rwalkeradvocate.