In the biggest game of a season filled with big games, the Bellarmine-Jefferson High girls' basketball team was beat at its own game.
For the entire season, the Guards prided themselves on playing a relentless pressure defense that caused turnovers and kept opponents reeling.
But in Saturday evening's CIF State Division V Southern California Regional championship, the tables were turned and it was Bell-Jeff that was the victim of some high-pressure defense.
It was No. 5 seed Rolling Hills Prep that rode that tough defense into the Division V State Championship, as it defeated the host No. 3 Guards, 68-56.
After falling behind by double-digits in three of the four quarters, the Guards came back to cut the deficit to single digits in all three, only to have the Huskies power their way back every time.
"We haven't seen that kind of pressure all season, at all," Bell-Jeff Coach Claudia Villa said. "We have seen pieces of a team that could play good defense, but never a team that can go full-on like that.
"I loved watching them play, I really did. I enjoyed the game even if we were down … it was a great game. It was like we were getting beat by the up-and-comers. They have a good team and they have some shooters."
Junior Claire Borot had 17 points, 13 rebounds and four blocks for Bell-Jeff, which received 16 points, 10 rebounds and eight steals from junior Cosette Balmy and 15 points and 11 rebounds from junior Dalila Rincan.
Of the eight starters on the Rolling Hills Prep team, five are freshmen.
The Huskies (32-3), the Southern Section Division VI champions, caused 35 turnovers.
"We did have them scouted pretty well," Rolling Hills Prep Coach Richard Masson said. "But really, that's the way we've played all year. Even though we had them scouted, you still have to execute and I thought that we did a good job at doing that.
"We did get into some foul trouble, which is kind of scary with a small team like ours, but I'm happy they stuck with it through the highs and lows. But our defense was the difference."
It was that defense that allowed the Huskies to jump out to a big lead early. In an opening quarter that saw the Guards commit 13 turnovers, the Huskies surged to a 12-point advantage, 20-8, with 2:13 left. Bell-Jeff went into the first break trailing, 24-14. Rolling Hills Prep received 11 points in the first from freshman Marcy Pakele (18 points).
In the second, with Pakele in foul trouble, the Guards battled back, taking advantage of the Huskies' poor shooting (two of 11 from the field). Starting the stanza on a 9-2 run, the Guards whittled the lead down to 26-23 on a basket by Balmy. Bell-Jeff kept it close the rest of the quarter, as the Huskies went into halftime in front by four, 30-26.
Rolling Hills Prep came storming back in the third quarter, embarking on a 13-0 run to increase its advantage to 43-26 on a basket by freshman Alyssa Maxev (game-high 23 points) with 2:44 left. At that point, Bell-Jeff had committed eight turnovers and missed its first seven shots of the quarter.
"They had a good defense, but we made too many mistakes and we let them back too many times," Balmy said. "But they did have some good shooters."
Again, the Guards clawed their way back and cut the deficit to 45-40 after three quarters.
However, after another quick start to begin the fourth by the Huskies, who enjoyed a 7-0 run, the Guards found themselves trailing by 12, 52-40, with 6:18 left. Bell-Jeff whittled the lead down to 55-48 at the 3:53 mark, but the Huskies responded with an 8-0 run to take back control, 63-48, with 2:34 remaining. Thereafter, the Guards just couldn't battle back a last time.
The loss ended one of the most successful seasons in program history for Bell-Jeff (23-4). The Guards captured the Southern Section Division V-A championship and advanced to the Southern California championship game for only the second time in school history.
"This group, can I tell you, I'm so excited to have back with the exception of just one player," Villa said. "I tell them that they made it to the final four in California. How may other teams can say that? It stinks to lose and everybody hates to lose, but I told them let's not forget how we got here and what we did this year.