Thirty-one games into the girls' basketball season and deep into the CIF Division V State Championships, Bellarmine-Jefferson High Coach Claudia Villa is still pushing her team.
With the Guards preparing for their most important contest of the season, Villa continues to teach, motivate and fine tune her squad.
"No matter how many games you've played or how many hours you've had on the court, there are always things to learn and there are always things a player can do to get better and improve their game," Villa said. "There are still things we need to fix and there are things that we can do better. ...I can be a very tough cookie, and they know it.
"With our last game, I got on them a little bit. It wasn't because of the way that they played, but more to do with some individual things. You have to be a better teammate, even when you aren't successful with certain things individually. If someone is upset at herself for not doing something, don't be mad on the court, be mad at home."
Villa's approach and tactics have worked wonders with Bell-Jeff this season, as the team storms into the Division V Southern California Regional championship game. The No. 3 seed Guards will play at 7 p.m. Saturday at home against No. 5 Rolling Hills Prep, with the winner earning advancement to the state championship game.
Behind a tenacious defense, an attacking transition game and a small core of talented players, Bell-Jeff (23-3) has been dominating on its way to the Southern California title contest. The Guards have won 22 straight games and last tasted defeat Dec. 27.
Since the defeat, Bell-Jeff went undefeated in capturing a Santa Fe League title and steamrolled its way through the Southern Section Division V-A playoffs, culminating with a 56-39 win against Chadwick in the championship.
The Guards have carried that success through the state playoffs, earning lopsided wins against Kern Valley (76-36), Grace Brethren (69-22) and No. 2 Crean Lutheran (50-35) Tuesday in the regional semifinals.
Opponents have found the going rough against the Guards in the postseason, as Bell-Jeff has outscored its opponents, 420-212, in seven games. In three state games, the advantage is 195-93.
The Guards realize that much of their success this season is a direct result of their defensive prowess.
"It is a personal satisfaction for us and it's a really big thing for us to play our defense," said Bell-Jeff junior Cosette Balmy, who had a game-high 17 points to go along with 10 rebounds and eight steals in Tuesday's win. "Defense is everything to us.
"When you play good defense and you know it frustrates the other team that makes you happy. Once we play our defense, we get our points and everything comes together. That is the key to everything for us."
With just eight players on its roster, Bell-Jeff has almost always been the smaller squad against opponents this season. But that won't be the case when it faces Rolling Hills Prep (31-3), which will suit up either seven or eight players (one is questionable with an ankle injury) for Saturday's contest.
Of the eight players, five are freshmen and none are seniors.
The Huskies are fresh off a convincing 74-49 victory Tuesday against No. 1 Heritage Christain in the other regional semifinal. Rolling Hills Prep also notched state tournament wins against Maranatha Christian (75-24) and Chadwick (53-42). The Huskies won the Southern Section Division VI title with a 67-28 rout of Grace Brethren.
"We know they have some good shooters," Villa said. "But we will see if they have seen the type of defense that we bring. We have to be in their faces for every shot and not give them anything."
Rolling Coach Richard Masson said he expects tough competition from the Guards.
"They are a good team and they are very athletic," said Masson, whose squad won the Southern Section crown with just six players. "They are a solid team. But we really focus on what we need to do ourselves to be successful.
"We have seldom had a full squad this season. With some injuries, we've had to be very resilient. We have gotten a lot better since the beginning of the year and the girls have been working hard to do the little things to get better. We are very small, so we need to play with energy."
A win Saturday would put the Guards, who fell in the regional semifinals last season, into the state Division V championship game March 24 at Golden 1 Center in Sacramento.