The success of Santa Ana Mater Dei this season hasn't been accomplished with smoke and mirrors -- as some might suspect -- but with a tough defense anchored by Ashley Voisinet, who is having a senior season to remember before going off to San Diego.
"The first two months of school, we didn't touch a basketball," said Voisinet, who is averaging a team-high 17 points. "We worked really hard on strength and conditioning so that we could excel at what we do best, which is defense, fast-breaking and pressing."
Mater Dei, No. 9 in The Times' rankings, won 10 of its first 12 games, losing Monday to fifth-ranked San Clemente, 56-42, in the finals of the Larry Doyle Orange County Championship.
The Monarchs had been ranked third based on victories over No. 7 Rialto Eisenhower, No. 4 Long Beach Wilson, and No. 10 Fullerton Rosary. They also defeated one of San Diego's top teams, La Jolla Country Day.
The only other team to defeat Mater Dei was Orem (Utah) Timpview, which shot 72% and won, 64-63.
"We're just in better condition, so we own the second and fourth quarters," Coach Geri Campeau said.
That was evident in an Orange County Championship semifinal against Rosary, a Serra League rival. The Monarchs outscored the Royals, 16-12, in the fourth quarter and won, 48-44. The night before, Mater Dei outscored Capistrano Valley over the last 10 minutes, 17-9, in a 48-40 victory.
"We've talked about not doing what we did last year, which was peak in December," Voisinet said. "When league came around, we went into a slump."
In a four-team league that includes Rosary and No. 14 Santa Margarita, there's little margin for error when it comes to qualifying for the playoffs. But Mater Dei has received big performances this season from three sophomores, Chanel Foster, Christina Lopez and Jen Rogers, and senior Lindsay Gabler.
"[Rogers] has stepped up more than anybody expected," Voisinet said of her teammate, who is averaging 13 points. "We're performing at the level we expected, but there's still some room for improvement."
Lauren Riley, San Clemente's 6-foot-4 junior center who provided a major defensive presence for the Tritons, is out for the season after breaking her right leg.
Riley fell with 6:05 left in San Clemente's 60-39 victory over previously undefeated Placentia El Dorado, breaking her tibia and fibula. She had surgery on Saturday and will be in a walking boot for the next six weeks.
Riley, who transferred to San Clemente this season from Irvine Woodbridge, was averaging 7.3 points and 8.2 rebounds.
Kiley Jones, a 5-9 junior, replaced Riley the next night against Santa Margarita and scored 12 points, all on three-point baskets, in a 57-42 victory.
San Bernardino upset two ranked teams in the Ayala tournament, defeating Torrance Bishop Montgomery, 60-58, in the first round and Temecula Valley, 50-43, in the second.
Said Janevia Taylor, who averaged 24.6 points in the tournament: "We're really good if we play as a team. Right now, we have to prove it. We're as good as any team here."
Well, not quite.
The next night, San Bernardino lost to La Puente Bishop Amat, 82-63, in the quarterfinals. The much-bigger Lancers had their way inside, despite Taylor's 24 points and Lawonda Stone's 23. Then Alhambra Keppel outlasted San Bernardino, 54-50.
Keppel's Monique Diaz celebrated her 18th birthday by scoring seven of her 10 points after the Aztecs had tied Brea Olinda, 36-36, in the fourth quarter of a game they eventually won, 47-45.
"Our motivation is knowing we're the underdog," said Diaz, who said that last season's soft schedule didn't sufficiently prepare the team for the playoffs. "But we want to break out of that mold."
Last week, Keppel played its first games this season against teams ranked by The Times. The Aztecs defeated Palmdale, 39-36, and Brea, and led Long Beach Poly in the fourth quarter before the Jackrabbits closed with a 15-3 run to pull out a 60-51 victory.
Jessica Liang, Lani Marsden and Krista Arase were also big contributors for Keppel.