La Canada High girls' basketball avoids late collapse to San Marino

LA CAÑADA — Faced with an eight-point deficit late in the third quarter, the San Marino High girls' basketball team turned to its two seniors, Leigh Kunitake and Felita Salim, Thursday at La Cañada High.

When the Titans battled all the way back to take the lead early in the fourth, the Spartans not shockingly looked to junior Courtney Chen on senior night. The point guard finished with a team-high 16 points, eight rebounds, three steals and scored all six of La Cañada’s final points and all but four of its 13 fourth-quarter points to secure a 48-41 victory.

“That’s Courtney, Courtney really puts the team on her back and gets the ball in the hoop,” said La Cañada Coach Tamar Hill, whose team improved to 17-8, 8-1 in the Rio Hondo League to set up a winner-take-all showdown with South Pasadena Thursday.

While the Titans mounted a late rally to claim a lead in the final six-and-a-half minutes, San Marino Coach Kenny Fisher said the contest came down to rebounding. La Cañada held a 36-20 rebounding advantage over a much smaller visiting squad.

“We just couldn’t rebound and they were beating us up on the boards,” said Fisher, whose team fell to 14-11, 5-4 in league. “We’d take bad shots, miss, get them to take tough shots, miss and they get the board, that’s the biggest thing.”

Still, San Marino closed the last minute of the third quarter on an 8-2 run to whittle what was once a 10-point deficit to two, 35-33, heading into the fourth.

“We didn’t make good decisions down the stretch, way too many turnovers,” said Hill, whose team had nine giveaways in the fourth quarter.

Tiffany Meihls sparked the run when she hit a jump shot from the corner with 57 seconds left in the quarter to cut La Cañada's lead to 33-27. The Titans then got consecutive three-pointers with 26 seconds left and at the buzzer from Kunitake (17 points) and Salim (nine points), respectively, to make it a two-point game, 35-33.

Salim put the Titans ahead, 36-35, for the first time since their 5-3 advantage 1:33 into the game when she hit another three with 6:21 to play in the game. La Cañada's Keilee Bessho (seven points, four rebounds) made sure the lead was short-lived again when she banked a short jumper off the glass 17 seconds later.

A Meihls layup off a rebound and outlet pass from San Marino’s Kristen Tsai tied the game at 41 with 2:30 to go. That’s when momentum left the Titans for good, as Chen drew Salim’s fifth foul on the next trip down the floor.

“That was big, she was having a good game,” Fisher said. “That’s tough, but hey, she reached. … We just need to learn to be a little more disciplined.”

Chen made both free throws and hit a floater in the lane, following a San Marino miss and rebound from La Cañada’s Amber Graves (six points, seven rebounds), to give the Spartans a 45-41 lead with 1:28 to go.

“Nobody really likes to be in that kind of situation,” Chen said. “We like to make it easier on ourselves, but when it comes to that kind of situation you just have to pull together, stay together and not get too anxious or anything — stay together, work together, play together.”

The Titans called timeout and attempted to climb back into the game by fouling the Spartans. San Marino had trouble getting the ball back, as it couldn’t get the defensive rebounds needed late with the Spartans grabbing four rebounds (three offensive) in the final 35 seconds.

“It was good seeing them all kind of step up in those key moments where we needed them to do the little things, whatever the case may be to be a dent in their momentum a little bit,” said Hill, whose team held a 10-3 rebound advantage in the fourth quarter.

La Cañada also received five points and seven rebounds from Lauren Barsamian. San Marino got eight points from Emma Wong.

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