Disappointment snuck up on the Vista girls’ basketball team the way it does for a child who wades through a box of cereal looking for a prize and discovers it’s not there.
The opportunity to win the Southern California Regional Division II final Saturday afternoon at the Los Angeles Sports Arena was there. But the prize was not.
Anaheim Katella rallied in the fourth quarter to defeat Vista, 56-50, for the championship.
“We didn’t expect to come down here and lose,” Vista Coach Joe DeMaria said.
Chris Enger, the 6-foot-4 catalyst of Vista’s 28-4 team, said the season has been wonderful but that looking back on her final time in a Panther uniform will be painful.
“I’ll always have to look back on this game, and that’s hard,” she said.
Vista, the San Diego Section Division II champion, took a 44-41 lead going into the fourth quarter, and Katella’s leading scorer, 5-11 forward Joni Easterly, was on the bench with four fouls.
Easterly, who finished with a game-high 24 points, sat out the last 2:11 minutes of the third quarter and the first minute of the fourth before she re-entered the game with the Knights down by five.
“I couldn’t move like I usually do,” Easterly said.
But after Enger, who led Vista with 20 points, scored inside with 6:46 remaining for a 48-43 lead, Katella went on a 9-0 run and Enger picked up her third and fourth fouls within 12 seconds.
Enger’s third foul came on a basket by Katella’s Wendy Carlson, and Carlson completed the three-point play to tie the game at 48. Her fourth, a foul of Easterly with 5:03 left, led to two more free throws that gave the Knights the lead for good, 50-48.
Easterly was concerned when she heard the whistle blow.
“It was pretty scary,” she said. “I thought it might be on me. Then I knew she had her fourth, and I was just trying to get her her fifth.”
Enger didn’t foul out, but Katella outscored the Panthers, 13-2, in the final 6:46 to put the game away. Vista didn’t score in the final 3 minutes, after Renee Richardson’s basket made it 52-50.
“In the fourth,” DeMaria said, “we didn’t put it in when we had to, and they made some easy baskets. I really think that was the key. Our idea in the fourth quarter was to work the ball, work for the easy two- and three-footers, and they just didn’t go in.”
Vista was down, 28-22, at the half, but was effective against Katella’s zone defense in the third quarter as the Panthers outscored the Knights, 22-13.
Vista had 10 turnovers in the first half but stayed close with free-throw shooting (10 of 13, 16 of 21 for the game). The Panthers shot just 17 of 41 from the field, something DeMaria attributed not just to the team being off but to Katella being on.
“Yeah, our shooting was bad, but it had a lot to do with who we played,” he said.
Added Enger: “They just didn’t fall today.”
And Easterly, who scored 12 of her team’s 16 points in the fourth quarter, was a big factor.
“She not only stood and took the 8-footers,” said Enger, “she banked and did it all.”
“When she came back in the lineup,” DeMaria said, “she just took charge.”