WEST HILLS — There is a group of three Bellarmine-Jefferson High girls' basketball players who had advanced to the CIF Southern Section semifinals three straight seasons since joining the program four years ago.
If the three were going to make it four in a row this season, however, it was going to take an upset effort against a talented and higher-ranked Chaminade team in a quarterfinal on the road Wednesday night to accomplish the feat.
Led by two of those seniors, Rishonda Napier and Jasmine Smith, the No. 6 Guards put together a solid defensive effort, built an early lead and staved off comeback attempts by the No. 3 Eagles to earn a 65-54 victory at Chaminade.
Napier, who earned a nomination for McDonald's All-American this season, led all scorers, pouring in 34 points — including 14 in the first quarter.
Napier, who has been the team's leading scorer all season, said she feels no pressure to carry the Guards (23-7).
"I just want to play hard for my team," said Napier, who along with Smith and Averie Guzman helped Bell-Jeff win state and Southern Section titles as freshmen. "My teammates are so amazing to me. They pick me up when I'm down, they encourage me, so I feel no pressure. I just want to come out and play my heart out for these girls."
Bell-Jeff, which won its fifth straight Santa Cruz League championship this year, moves on to the semifinals against the winner of the quarterfinal between No. 7 Gardena Serra and No. 2 Oaks Christian. The game will be Saturday at 7 p.m. and the Guards will be on the road.
"We know we are going to be on the road for the next round, and we know we're going to go up against very good competition, whichever team wins," Bell-Jeff Coach Jaclyn Johnson said. "But we have seen both teams and we'll know what to expect from them."
The Guards caught a break early in the fourth quarter against Chaminade (23-5), the two-time Mission League champion. With 7:40 left and Bell-Jeff holding a seven-point lead, the Eagles' leading scorer, senior Annie Tarakchian, knocked Napier down with an errant elbow, drawing her fifth foul. She left the game after scoring 16 points and grabbing 15 rebounds.
Another Chaminade starter, junior Robyn Brown, fouled out with 1:09 left in the game.
Johnson said her team came out well-prepared for the Eagles.
"We knew coming in what Chaminade liked to do," she said. "We watched video and we knew they weren't very comfortable against the zone and we wanted to pressure and try to make them take strong outside shots. They hit some, but they definitely struggled at other times. That worked to our advantage."
Chaminade did experience shooting woes in the first half, as the team was just eight of 32 (25%) from the field. After taking a 2-0 lead to begin the game, the Eagles never enjoyed a lead the remainder of the contest.
Napier took control of the game early, hitting two three-pointers en rout to her 14 points in the first stanza. That helped the Guards take a 13-11 lead.
Tarakchian did her part for the Eagles in the second quarter, scoring all of her squad's 11 points. However, Smith (17 points, 11 rebounds) tallied seven in the second and Bell-Jeff took a 34-26 lead into halftime.
After a challenging first two quarters, Chaminade came out and converted its first three field goals in the third. When Mi'Chael Write scored on a layup at the 6:54 mark, the Guards' lead was down to one, 34-33. But Bell-Jeff weathered the storm and built its advantage back up to seven after three quarters, 48-41.
The Guards again had to stave off an Eagles surge in the fourth. Cassie MacLeod tipped in a missed shot with 2:14 left and Chaminade was within four, 58-54. But again Bell-Jeff held firm, as Napier converted free throws down the stretch to secure the win.
"Some of the things Rishonda can do on the court baffles me," Smith said. "She surprises me every single games. She's just amazing."