Bellarmine-Jefferson girls’ basketball gets chance at redemption in CIF final

Bellarmine-Jefferson girls’ basketball gets chance at redemption in CIF final
Bellarmine-Jefferson's Paige Losoya, left, and her teammates will look to corral the CIF Southern Section Division V-A Championship a year after coming up short in the Division VI title game. (Photo by Miguel Vasconcellos)

It is a chance at redemption and an opportunity to take care of some unfinished business.

Last season, the Bellarmine-Jefferson High girls' basketball team enjoyed a remarkable turnaround that included a berth in the CIF Southern Section Division VI championship. Unfortunately for the Guards, they were unable to secure the CIF title, as they lost to No. 1 seed Los Angeles Price, 62-40, at Godinez Fundamental High.

"It was kind of overwhelming last season when we made it, not only for the team, but for me as well," Bell-Jeff Coach Claudia Villa said. "It was such a new experience and they really didn't know what to expect. I don't want to say they were scared in that game, but I just think they were just intimidated from being there for the first time."

The Guards have used that loss as motivation for this season. In the Division V-A playoffs, the Guards have steamrollered their way to a second straight championship contest.

This time around, it is Bell-Jeff that is the No. 1 seed, as it returns to Godinez in a quest to capture the program's third CIF banner and the first in eight years. The Guards will take on Brentwood on Saturday in an 8 p.m. start.

"It is a completely different mentality for this team for this year's game and I don't see that timidness from them like I saw last year," Villa said. "Last year, there was a lot of confusion because they really didn't know what to expect.

"Their standards are so high right now and they are just not satisfied to just be in the finals. The demeanor of the girls is so different and they just have this confidence, which is so good to see. They are really determined to get this done this time around. ... I really think they feel this is their time."

Bell-Jeff will attempt to win the program's first CIF championship since 2009, when a Bryan Camacho-coached squad defeated Santa Clara, 61-31, in the V-A title contest. That team also went on to win a state title. The Guards also captured a CIF title in 1996 behind future WNBA player Jacelyn Johnson, who later coached Bell-Jeff, as well.

"I think we are just more determined to get the win this season after losing last season," Bell-Jeff sophomore Dalila Rincan said. "All the hard work that we put in this season, this is what it's all for.

"It's nice to have a lot of players back from last year because we now know what to do and we are familiar with the situation. We have improved a lot since last year and I think that is going to help us."

The Guards (24-3) entered the playoffs after winning the Santa Fe League championship, the program's first since securing a Santa Cruz League title in 2011-12. What followed was a blistering trek through the playoffs, with Bell-Jeff reeling off dominant victories against Thacher (58-27), Trinity Classical Academy (44-23) and No. 4 Bermuda Dunes Desert Christian Academy (67-30) in the semifinals.

In the postseason, Bell-Jeff has defeated its opponents by nearly 30 points a game.

As has been its calling card throughout the season, Bell-Jeff has used a swarming defense to frustrate opponents and force turnovers against playoff opponents.

"We are going to make a few adjustments to try and counter what Chadwick has, but we are going to come out and play our brand of Bell-Jeff basketball, which includes playing good, solid defense," Villa said. "I haven't seen anyone play a man-defense on them. The question is have they seen the kind of defensive pressure that we're going to bring and will they be able to perform under that kind of pressure?

"We live off our defense and we know that's what got us here, so we're not going to change that.'

Chadwick (19-6), the No. 2 seed, finished second in thee Prep League behind Flintridge Prep. In the playoffs, the Dolphins earned lopsided victories against Shalhevet (55-11), Boron (66-28) and Sherman Indian (52-31) and have an average margin of victory of 34 points.

The Dolphins will attempt to win their program's third CIF title and first since back-to-back championships in 1998 and 1999.

"Bell-Jeff is a team that is just relentless and they don't back down. I think my team is like that as well," said Chadwick Coach Moniquee Alexander, who played at UCLA. "I think it's going to come down to which team is willing to mentally lock in for the whole time.

"We have had our success in the playoffs and we have won by 30 points here and 30 points there, but we know this game is going to be different. You're talking about the No. 1 seed taking on the No. 2 seed and there's not too much difference between us. ... But I think we're ready and my girls are ready to bring it."