PASADENA -- Before the crowd had time to hold its collective breath and watch helplessly as the visitors launched a potential dagger, Alaina Balian came up with a huge defensive stop that denied everyone the suspense.
The junior center stuffed a three-point attempt as time expired, preserving the Armenian General Benevolent Union Vatche and Tamar High girls' basketball team's 39-38 win Monday over visiting Pilibos.
The Spartans (13-4, 5-1 in league) survived a ragged shooting slump that washed away an opening-half lead, assuming control once again in the fourth quarter to remain atop the Westside League standings with two games remaining. The Eagles dropped to 10-11 overall and 4-3 in league.
“I've seen my team play much better than this,” Spartans Coach Sam Mackall said. “But for an emotional win, this is right up there.”
AGBU led, 13-4, at the end of the first quarter, converting only one field goal in the second to hang on to a 16-14 halftime advantage. An inspired effort third-quarter effort and buzzer-beating 3-pointer by Nanor Babian narrowed the deficit to 28-27. She finished with a team-high 13 points.
Scoring quickly in the fourth quarter, the Spartans gained a one-point cushion. Yet, the lead changed hands six more times before Talar Habeshian drained the go-ahead foul shots to give AGBU a 39-38 lead with 1:22 to play.
Both teams came up empty on the ensuing offensive possessions, with the Spartans blowing a fast-break opportunity with a fumbled pass with 32 seconds left.
After inbounding the ball, Pilibos' Gareen Mehserdjian raced toward the basket and drew a foul. The junior guard missed both free-throws and Balian hauled down the board. The Eagles' Louiza Azizian ripped it away, but her momentum sent her into a traveling violation.
AGBU called for timeout with 10.3 seconds remaining.
The Spartans coughed up the ball and Pilibos dished it out to the right corner for a 3-point attempt that was swatted away by Balian (three blocks), sending the crowd and Spartans into a frenzy.
“I think this was one of our bigger wins of the season,” said Manoukian, who scored 10 points. “We were a little [discouraged] after falling behind, but we just pulled ourselves through and got back in it.”
The Spartans' rally in the third quarter was anchored by its zone defense, implemented to neutralize Mehserdjian. The speedy guard sliced her way through the defense in the opening half, finding plenty of scoring opportunities in the paint. In the second half, she resorted to outside shooting and ball distribution.
She finished with 13 points and four assists (all in the second half), and Azizian added 12.
“They were going through one player [Mehserdjian], so we adjusted our defense to help us get stops when it counted the most,” Mackall said.
The grudge match Monday between the rivals finished in almost the same dramatic fashion as the first meeting. On Jan. 25, Ahleen Bagolan drilled a 3-pointer as time expired to lift visiting AGBU, 45-42.
The Spartans close out their league schedule on the road with games against San Gabriel Academy and AGBU Canoga Park.