OJAI — It was a constant-pressure defense that put the Providence High girls' basketball team in the CIF Southern Section Division 5-AA semifinals and made it look like it would take down the No. 2 seed Saturday.
It was that same aggressive defense that eventually led to Providence's undoing in its first-ever semifinal appearance at Villanova Prep. Two key Pioneers sat out the second quarter with foul trouble, which allowed the Wildcats to climb back in the game and pull out the victory, 48-35.
"It was a great start," said Providence Coach Andrew Bencze, whose team took a 10-point lead in the first quarter. "In the first quarter we were the better team, but unfortunately we got into foul trouble and that unhinged the whole effort."
Providence built its early lead with defense, forcing nine of Villanova's 26 turnovers in the opening eight minutes.
"They had tremendous pressure on us, on the ball and off the ball," Villanova Prep Coach Ray Pierson said. "My hat is off to them, they're a really quick, hard working team and well-coached."
Providence stunned Villanova Prep right out the gate, taking a 12-2 lead six minutes into the game on a steal and pull-up jumper from Katia Dabbaghian, who finished with nine points, seven rebounds and seven steals.
The Wildcats (23-6) started heating up and cut their deficit to four, 12-8, heading into the second quarter behind four points each from Susanna Kolbeck and Natalie Miotti, who both finished with big games.
Kolbeck logged a double-double with game-highs in points (15) and rebounds (14). Miotti added 14 points and seven boards.
Ultimately, Providence (25-5) took too many risks defensively, as Janel Adraneda sat out the entire second quarter and Bea Benedicto (10 points) was on the bench for all but nine seconds of it as both players accumulated three fouls early into the contest.
Bencze dipped deep in his bench as a result and Villanova took advantage, tying the contest at 15, 17 and eventually 21 in the second quarter.
The Wildcats' Emily McAtee squared the score at 21 by nailing a corner jumper eight seconds before the buzzer sounded to end the first half.
"The foul trouble kind of helped [Villanova]," Bencze said. "When you're in foul trouble, you have people who aren't used to being out there for an extended period of time.
"Once we got side tracked and gave them some momentum we couldn't get back into it."
Providence retook the lead, 27-25, on a corner jumper from Julie Chambers two minutes into the second half, but it didn't last long, as McAtee put her team ahead, 28-27, with a three-pointer from the corner.
The Wildcats took the biggest lead of the game, 44-29, with a 19-4 run that lasted six minutes, carrying over into the fourth.
The Pioneers battled back with a jumper from Dabbaghian and a reverse layup from Adraneda and were looking to cut the lead to single digits when they forced a steal, but missed the ensuing layup.
Villanova got the rebound and got the ball out to Katrina Van Borg, who landed a dagger layup that put the Wildcats up, 46-33, with 2:46 remaining.
"We didn't play our best game, but there's only one team that ends the season with a win and it wasn't us this year, but hopefully that fires them up for next year," Bencze said.
Bencze said this history making season should be a sign of what is to come for his squad.
"Our program has always been considered very good, but we've always had a stumble in the playoffs," he said. "I feel this year the team turned the corner and figured out how to beat good teams. We did that in close games without one of our best players [Catherine Saint, who is injured]. I think the lesson to this young core group coming back is there's no reason they can't take one step further next year."