LONG BEACH — The Bellarmine-Jefferson High girls' basketball team shared a Santa Cruz championship in 2008. It was the program's first title in a decade.
The next three seasons would see the Guards breeze to a trio of league crowns, as Bell-Jeff was rarely pushed by opponents in league competition.
But this season, St. Anthony — chalk full of talented players — was determined to dethrone the Guards. That almost happened three weeks ago when the Saints were in the game late, but lost to the host Guards by four points.
Battling to secure its fifth straight league championship, Bell-Jeff traveled to Long Beach Tuesday evening for the rematch. Although the Guards suffered through a slow start and had to hold off the Saints in the fourth quarter, they were able to continue their league reign with a 46-37 victory.
It was the 36th straight league win for Bell-Jeff (19-7, 7-0 in league), which is ranked No. 8 in CIF Southern Section Division IV-AA. The last league loss the Guards suffered was on Jan. 12, 2008 when it fell to St. Mary's Academy, 59-54. The two teams shared the league championship that season.
With just one league game left and a two-game cushion on St. Anthony (13-11, 5-2) — No. 11 in Division IV-AA — the Guards will again be the league's No. 1 seed for the playoffs, which are set to begin next week.
Bell-Jeff has a chance to finish its fourth straight league season undefeated when it travels to take on host St. Matthias at 7 p.m. Thursday. In the teams' last meeting, the Guards easily defeated the Victorians, 93-15.
For the Bell-Jeff seniors who have been with the program for four years, ending with a fourth straight league crown was of the utmost importance.
"It was very important for all of the team, especially the seniors," Bell-Jeff senior Rishonda Napier said. "We have a lot of seniors on this team and we wanted to make sure that we went out the right way when it came to league."
Napier, who has been nominated for a McDonald's All-American award this season, gave her squad a spark on offense. She led all scorers with 27 points. Teammate Jasmine Smith, a senior, chipped in 11 points.
Unfortunately for Bell-Jeff, just three players combined for the team's other eight points.
The first time the Saints and Guards hooked up was Jan 19 at Bell-Jeff and the Guards were able to survive, 64-60, in a contest that was decided in the final seconds.
Napier said she expected a hard-fought battle on the Saints' home floor.
"Regardless of where we play, we just have to come out and play Bell-Jeff basketball and stay together as a team," she said. "We were just able to execute our game plan in the second half and we were able to come away with a win."
It was a tight contest in the first half with Bell-Jeff trying to contain 6-foot-3 junior Kendall Cooper. Bell-Jeff senior Averie Guzman played tough defense against Cooper, who finished the night with 14 points.
In a defensive struggle, the Guards trailed, 9-7, after the first quarter.
"We had a tremendously slow start," Bell-Jeff Coach Jaclyn Johnson said. "It started out as a low-scoring game and our defense was giving us what we wanted, we just couldn't put the ball in the basket."
The teams continued to struggle to find their offense in the second quarter, although the Guards seemed to wake up out of their funk, outscoring St. Anthony, 16-9, in the stanza to take a 23-17 lead into halftime.
"I knew we were going to get better offensively in the second half," Johnson said. "I think Jasmine was thinking about her shots too much in the first half and in the second half she just came out and did what Jasmine does, and that made the difference."
Bell-Jeff increased its advantage to 32-24 after three quarters.
"At halftime we just all got together and we said that we want this league title and we are going to have to go out and get it," Smith said. "And in the second half we played a lot better and we started coming together."
The Saints could only get as close as seven points in the fourth.
With one more regular season game remaining, the Guards are also looking forward to the playoffs.
"After that game on Thursday, then we go right into the playoffs," Smith said. "We're all looking forward to see what we can do in the playoffs."