With Noelle Quinn graduated and playing at UCLA, Torrance Bishop Montgomery was supposed to hand the Del Rey League girls basketball title over to La Puente Bishop Amat.
But their performance last week suddenly has the Knights believing a league title, and possibly more, is within their grasp.
They played like champions.
Nykia Peace, a 5-foot-8 junior point guard, played like Quinn, who led the Knights to four state titles and was twice selected player of the year in the Southland.
And Bishop Montgomery didn’t hand anything over to Bishop Amat.
“I didn’t know until after the game that it was a reality, that we could actually win this again,” said Coach Lisa Cooper, whose team shocked host Bishop Amat, 52-47, which was at the time ranked sixth in the Southland by The Times. “We haven’t been too consistent but this is actual reality; we could [win] another section championship.”
It wasn’t just Cooper who noticed. She heard comments that night and the next day, and it kept coming back to Peace’s performance: 22 points, four rebounds, six assists, four steals and a flair for being Quinn-esque.
“It was like seeing Nykia step in right where Noelle left off,” Cooper said. “She was the go-to person, the person who made things happen. She definitely filled Noelle’s shoes.”
Filling Quinn’s shoes for one game is a lot different than doing it for a season.
Quinn’s legacy at Bishop Montgomery was comparable to that of Cheryl Miller at Riverside Poly, Nicole Erickson at Brea Olinda, or Loree Moore at Harbor City Narbonne.
Quinn, a 6-foot guard-forward, gave the Knights a 114-21 record over four seasons and enough brilliant moves to fill an eight-hour videotape. Coaches mentioned her in the same sentence as Miller, Lisa Leslie and Diana Taurasi.
Quinn taught her teammates about effort, leadership, will and determination. She also gave them plenty of championship-game experience.
But Bishop Montgomery lost Quinn and 6-3 Khiara Ferguson (Cal Poly Pomona) to graduation, leaving behind Peace and juniors Roney Friend and Whitney Warren as returning starters.
The team was inconsistent early in the season. It lost to Brea by 28 points, then played the Wildcats a week later and lost by only eight. Bishop Montgomery defeated Long Beach Wilson by seven points and lost by nine to Wilson two weeks later.
Before beating Bishop Amat, Bishop Montgomery was ranked fourth in Division III-A by the Southern Section, seventh-highest among Division III teams ranked by The Times. That’s a far cry from being a favorite for the state title.
But now at 16-6, the Knights have won 10 of their last 11 games, and hope to add to that tonight against North Torrance.
Peace called her performance against Bishop Amat a watershed moment.
“This shows I can step up,” Peace said. “It never seemed that way before because we always looked for [Quinn]. I proved to myself, and to everyone else, that I could lead the team.”
Peace had her doubts. Over the summer, Peace had to get used to the idea of not having one of the best players in Southern California history to bail the team out of any jam.
“It was bittersweet,” Peace said of her chance to step into the spotlight. “I was wondering if I could do it because I was in her shadow so long. I was a little bit nervous.”
Peace certainly won over Bishop Amat Coach Richard Wiard, whose team has lost the last 10 games to Bishop Montgomery over five seasons, including last season’s section championship.
“She put them on her shoulders,” Wiard said. “We made a run, caught them, and she said, ‘That’s about enough.’ She made shots, she made plays, everything.”
Unlike past seasons, Bishop Montgomery players stayed together during the summer instead of going separate ways with club teams.
“A hand is stronger than a finger,” Cooper said. “They figured that out finally. Last year, the finger was stronger than the hand.”
Peace and her teammates learned to play as a team.
“All the starting five can be role players,” Cooper said. “On a given night, any of the five can score 20.”
Four of the five have already done so. Four average double figures: Peace (16.6), Warren (11.8), Kendra Morris (10.6) and Friend (10.5).
It may take a team to win a title, but more standout performances by Peace will be necessary in the more meaningful games of February and March. It was that kind of performance by Quinn that helped win the state title against San Francisco Sacred Heart Cathedral last spring.
“We expect her to stay at that level as a leader and captain,” Friend said of Peace. “We expect her to lead us like that the rest of the season.
“But we’re not going to let her do it by herself.”