BELLARMINE-JEFFERSON HIGH — As leaders on the Bellarmine-Jefferson High girls' basketball team, Rishonda Napier and Jasmine Smith have experienced the rigors and pressure of compiling deep runs in the CIF Southern Section playoffs.
The two were instrumental in leading the Guards to a state championship in 2009, as well as helping the team to the semifinals a year ago.
With Bell-Jeff trailing Antelope Valley on Wednesday in a Division III-A quarterfinal contest, the Guards needed Napier and Smith to step up. And step up they did.
Both juniors led the way with fine performances in the fourth quarter to fuel a torrid and gutsy comeback by the Guards in a 77-73 victory at Bell-Jeff.
"That's why they're our team captains," said first-year Bell-Jeff Coach Jaclyn Johnson about the talented pair. "They know we expect a great deal from them and they are always willing to step up when we need them."
The win puts the No. 4-seeded Guards (22-6) — who won the Santa Cruz League championship this season — into the semifinals for the fourth straight season. The Guards will take on No. 1-seeded Orange Lutheran at 7:30 p.m. today in a semifinal game at Concordia College in Irvine.
The Guards will likely have their hands full with the Lancers (23-6), who finished second in the Trinity League behind powerhouse Mater Dei. Orange Lutheran has sliced its way through the playoffs, getting wins against Los Altos, 79-31, Northview, 68-31, and Alemany, 61-47. In addition to outscoring their opponents, 208-100, the Lancers are averaging 68 points a game in the postseason.
The Guards definitely showed some resiliency against Antelope Valley (24-6), the Golden League champion. Trailing heading into the fourth quarter, Napier scored nine of her 23 points in the final stanza and Smith tallied seven of her 17 in the frame.
"We do our best to keep everyone positive, and we tried to set a good tone for that fourth quarter," Napier said of the roles of herself and Smith. "But it was all a team effort. We had a lot of people who were able to step up, and that's why we won. It wasn't just the two of us, but everyone."
The Lopes began the game with a fine display of outside shooting, coupled with a solid inside game. The Bell-Jeff pressure defense didn't seem to affect Antelope Valley, as the Guards had trouble stopping their opponent's transition game, which led to some easy lay-ups.
At the end of one quarter, Bell-Jeff trailed, 24-15.
"We didn't stick to our game plan, that's for sure," Johnson said. "But that is a very, very good team in Antelope Valley. They played very hard. But we didn't stick to what we wanted to do in the game."
The Lopes even converted their free-throw attempts, making their first 10 in a row.
Things got worse for the Guards in the second quarter, as the Lopes scored their fourth three-pointer of the first half.
The outlook was definitely bleak or Bell-Jeff when they fell behind by 16 points, 38-22, with 3:46 remaining in the second after a bucket by Keiona Mathews. Mathews led all scorers with 26 points to go along with 10 rebounds.
Smith said despite the deficit, her teammates were able to keep a positive attitude.
"I think we all came together mentally," Smith said. "We knew what we had to do, and we all came together and got the job done at the end of the??? day."
The Guards battled back toward the end of the second quarter behind some big baskets form Napier, Smith and Leslie Lopez-Wood in the final minutes. By halftime, Bell-Jeff had whittled the lead down to a manageable three points, 40-37.
"That was huge what we were able to do at the end of that second quarter," Johnson said. "I think it proved to our players that we had enough to come back against this team."
Despite getting to within a point of the lead twice in the third quarter, Bell-Jeff was never able to jump out in front.
It appeared the Lopes began tire in the fourth quarter, and the Guards were able to get some steals and defensive stops.
Bell-Jeff was able to enjoy its first lead of the game, 61-60, in the opening seconds of the fourth when Napier hit a jump-shot. The Guards lost the lead briefly in the fourth, 62-61, and trailed, 67-63, following a lay-up by Nakira Johnson with 5:53 remaining.
Again the Guards came roaring back, retaking the lead, 69-67, at the 3:31 mark and were up, 75-73, in the final minute. The Lopes had a chance to take the lead with just over 30 seconds left, but a three-point attempt by Selina Gonzalez fell short.
Following a lay-up by Smith with 27.6 remaining, Bell-Jeff's Tiffany Kho was able to steal the ball on the Lopes' next possession.