BELLARMINE-JEFFERSON HIGH — It was nothing short of a dogfight Thursday evening when the Bellarmine-Jefferson High girls' basketball team took on a tough St. Anthony squad in a crucial Santa Cruz League game.
Both teams took turns holding the lead throughout four quarters — with 13 lead changes and nine ties in the second and third quarters alone — with the Guards and the Saints not being able to take more than a five-point lead.
But despite falling behind with less than two minutes left, Bell-Jeff maintained its composure, took advantage of some missed St. Anthony free throws in the final seconds and received a big rebound to earn a 64-60 victory at home.
The Guards (14-6, 3-0 in league), ranked No. 9 in CIF Southern Section Division IV-AA, expected nothing less than a hard-fought battle from the Saints (10-8, 2-1), the No. 10 team in the division. St. Anthony, which has been the league runner-up the last two seasons, has quality wins this season against competitive teams and possesses an accomplished player in 6-foot-3 junior Kendall Cooper.
In addition, the Saints had beaten their first two league opponents by an average of 67.5 points.
"We knew it was going to be tough," Bell-Jeff Coach Jaclyn Johnson said. "They have a good team and [Cooper] is a fabulous player. We knew that they were going to pound the ball into her down low and try and beat us inside. If they were going to beat us they were going to have to do it from the outside."
Bell-Jeff had plenty of motivation going into Thursday's game. The Guards are trying to win their sixth straight Santa Fe League championship this season and haven't lost a league contest since Jan. 12, 2008, falling to St. Mary's Academy, 59-54. The win against St. Anthony was their 32nd straight league triumph.
The Guards received a spirited performance from senior center Jasmine Smith. Along with scoring a game-high 26 points, Smith was also a beast on the boards, grabbing 19 rebounds.
"My coach told me that I have to get any rebound that comes my way, I was going to have to box out and I was going to have to get my teammates the ball whenever I could," Smith said. "I just wanted to do my part to help the team win."
The Guards also received a boost from senior guard Rishonda Napier, who had 21 points.
Napier had a big bucket with 51 seconds left to give the Guards a late lead, then calmly sank two free throws with 2.7 seconds remaining to seal the victory.
St. Anthony was able to take a 60-58 lead with 1:33 left in the contest when sophomore Sierra Skiba scored on a driving layup.
But Bell-Jeff answered and tied the score at 60 when senior Kiah Jones scored under the basket and was fouled. Jones missed the free-throw attempt, but Bell-Jeff's smallest player, 5-2 Tiffany Kho, skied in to grab the rebound. She got the ball to Napier who made good on a pull-up jumper at the top of the free-throw line to put Bell-Jeff in front, 62-60.
"That rebound by Tiffany was humongous," Johnson said. "That was such a big play for us."
The Guards then gave the Saints a break when St. Anthony senior Raquel Johnson was fouled with 12.6 seconds left. But she missed both attempts and Bell-Jeff got the rebound, forcing the Saints to foul Napier, who took care of the rest.
Cooper ended the game with 19 points, 10 rebounds and four blocks. Johnson added 15.
Cooper hurt the Guards early, scoring eight points and tallying six rebounds and two steals in the first quarter. However, The Guards clamped down on her in the second and third quarters, limiting the junior to four points.
Bell-Jeff trailed, 14-12, after one quarter and fell behind, 27-25, at the half. The hosts also trailed by one after three quarters, 47-46.
"We showed some poise, but not great poise," Jaclyn Johnson said. "We are going to have to play better against them the next time at their place."
The rematch will be at 7 p.m. Feb. 7 at St. Anthony.