SANTA ANA — Just three weeks ago, the Costa Mesa High girls' basketball team was in the midst of an eight-game losing streak.
Coach Nichole Maddox said it became tough mentally for the Mustangs.
But nowadays, Mesa is thinking more pleasant thoughts. First place in the Orange Coast League is more than just a pipe dream after the Mustangs breezed past Calvary Chapel, 52-26, on Tuesday night.
Costa Mesa is now 8-11, but 3-0 in league, tied for first with cross-town rival Estancia.
"We lost the mind game," senior forward Annie Sturm said of the Mustangs' 1-8 start. "But now that league's started, we've come out a lot more focused. We're starting to win the head game, which has completely changed the way we're playing. We're not getting down on ourselves as much. We're starting to focus a lot more. Focus and defense, that's what we're about this year."
The Mustangs had both in abundance against overmatched Calvary Chapel (1-13, 0-3). They had 34 steals, led by senior forward Itzel Flores with seven and sophomore guard Marilyn Armstrong with six.
They also hit the boards. Sturm had 10 points and 13 rebounds and Flores also grabbed 10 rebounds.
Defense is how the Mustangs will win games. Maddox could find little to complain about after her team outscored Calvary Chapel, 22-6, in the first quarter.
"We have to live and die by our defense," Maddox said. "It's something that if we don't do it very well, then we know the way the game is going to go. If we play good defense, then we usually win, so defense is our key every game."
Sophomore guard Molly Settles, who had a game-high 11 points, came off the bench to score seven consecutive points in the opening quarter. Her first three-pointer of the season gave Mesa an 18-5 lead.
Three times in the first three quarters, Calvary Chapel turned the ball over because the Eagles couldn't get it inbounds within five seconds. The Mustangs kept pushing their press defense, getting their lead to 30 points after junior Noor Salameh hit a buzzer-beating jumper to end the third quarter.
Mesa took its biggest lead, at 52-19, when Settles canned a jumper for the Mustangs' final points of the game.
Justine Smith scored 11 points for Calvary Chapel, which has lost 10 of 11 league games over the past two years. Sarah Strachan added seven points and eight rebounds.
Flores typifies the scrappy play for Mesa. She's second on the team in rebounding despite being listed at 5-foot-6. Tuesday's win was her fourth double-digit rebounding game of the season.
"I don't know, I keep the intensity up," she said. "I feel like if I keep going, the team keeps going. I try to stay focused."
That's a theme as well for the Mustangs, who play at home against Laguna Beach on Thursday while Estancia plays at Calvary Chapel.
If both local teams win, Tuesday's Battle for the Bell game at Estancia would be for outright first place. Mesa hasn't finished first in league since 2007-08, when the Michelle Figueroa-led Mustangs won in Coach Jim Weeks' final season.
That season was also the last time the Mustangs beat the Eagles in league.
"The rivalry's going to be a lot bigger this year," Maddox said. "We're playing really well; I'm really proud of my team. It's looking like we're going to be playing for first place."
Orange Coast League
Costa Mesa 52, Calvary Chapel 26
SCORE BY QUARTERS
CM 22 – 13 – 12 – 5 — 52
CC 6 – 4 – 7 – 9 — 26
CM – Settles 11, Sturm 10, Armstrong 9, Flores 6, Castro 5, Wase 4, Aguilar 4, Salameh 3.
3-pt. goals – Settles 1.
Fouled out – None.
Technicals – None.
CC – Smith 11, Strachan 7, Bowman 2, Verschueren 2, Eichenmuller 2, Desmond 2.
3-pt. goals – None.
Fouled out – None.
Technicals – None.