IRVINE — It was a game it could have won.
It was a game it probably should have won.
With just under five minutes remaining in its contest against Orange Lutheran High, the Bellarmine-Jefferson High girls' basketball team took a five-point lead — its biggest lead of the night — in a CIF Southern Section semifinal Saturday.
The Guards looked in control, and appeared to be well in their way to qualifying for their third championship contest in four years.
However, the Bell-Jeff offense went cold and the team committed mistakes down the stretch in the final minutes of the Division III-A game, and the Lancers took advantage.
The Guards were unable to stave off the charge and Orange Lutheran battled back to win the game, 43-40, at Concordia University in Irvine.
At the conclusion of the game, many of the Bell-Jeff faithful weren't happy with some of the officiating calls made in the final minutes. But Guards' Coach Jaclyn Johnson said they can't blame the referees for the loss.
"The referees have nothing to do with it, that was all us," Johnson said. "We just did not execute. They just didn't do what I asked them to do, and that's what happened.
"It may have been nerves that got the best of them. Everybody wants to take over and do the best that they can for the team, but being so young they might not understand that might not be what's necessarily best for the team."
The Guards played well through the first three quarters against a tough Orange Lutheran (24-6) team. In the fourth quarter, Bell-Jeff appeared to have finally swung the momentum in its favor when Leslie Lopez-Wood nailed a three-pointer with 4:49 remaining to give the visitors a 39-34 advantage.
However, over the course of the final minutes of the contest, the Guards could only manage one point the rest of the way, that coming on a free throw by Jasmine Smith with 1:38 remaining and the Guards clinging to a one-point lead, 40-39.
The Lancers retook the lead, 41-40, with 41.2 seconds left when Krissy Karr sank two free throws.
After missing a shot on their next possession, the Guards got the ball back after an errant pass was intercepted by Smith. Smith got the ball and eyed teammate Rishonda Napier, who was sprinting toward the Lancers' basket. But Smith's pass went over Napier's head and out of bounds.
Forced to foul at that point, the Guards caught a break when Orange Lutheran players twice missed the front end of one-and-one free-throw situations with under 20 seconds left. On an attempt at the line by Jesse Spittel, Smith went up and grabbed the rebound, falling to the floor. Unfortunately for Bell-Jeff, Smith was ruled to have fallen out of bounds.
Still a one-point game, Bell-Jeff fouled Karr with 12.2 seconds left. She sank both attempts to give Orange Lutheran a 43-40 advantage.
After a time out, Bell-Jeff had possession of the ball with 8.1 seconds and a chance to tie the score. However, the shot fell short and the Lancers got the rebound.
The Guards had problems containing Karr, who ended with a game-high 18 points.
Bell-Jeff was paced by University-of-Arizona-bound Layana White, who scored a team-high 13 points — including three three-pointers. Smith added 10 points and 10 rebounds and Napier contributed 10 points.
Orange Lutheran didn't shoot well in the first half Saturday. In fact, the Lancers converted just six of 20 shots from the field in the opening two quarters. In addition, they also committed nine turnovers in the first two quarters and had 19 in the game.
Despite their struggles, the Lancers trailed by just one point, 21-20, as the half.
"They really didn't shoot as well as they are capable of shooting," Johnson said. "We should have been able to capitalize. We didn't use our speed and we didn't push the ball. They just kind of just sat back and waited for us to make mistakes, and unfortunately we did."
The loss could have ended the season for Bell-Jeff (22-7), which won its fourth straight Santa Cruz League championship this season. With divisional championship games being held through Saturday, the Guards will have to wait and see if they will get an invitation to compete in the state tournament.
Last season, Bell-Jeff was also knocked out in the semifinal round, but was given a spot in the state playoffs.
"We will just have to wait and see if we make it," Johnson said. "Hopefully we can make it."
Last season, the Guards won a game in the state tournament against Corcoran before falling to Harvard-Westlake.