LA CAÑADA — A first half that saw seven lead changes was soon followed by a second half the La Cañada High girls’ basketball team controlled and dominated en route to prevailing in the quarterfinals of the CIF Southern Section Division III-A tournament against the visiting Oak Park Eagles.
The Spartans outscored the Eagles by double-digits in the second half to turn a slim one-point lead at halftime into a 53-39 victory on Wednesday and gives La Cañada a second consecutive berth in the semifinals, where they will travel to face Santa Margarita on Saturday.
Wednesday evening’s home game with Oak Park, the runner-up of the Tri-Valley League, played out similarly to La Cañada’s second-round win over San Luis Obispo in that the Spartans played a stellar second half after a forgettable first. Alyssa Miller’s three three-pointers in the half sparked the turn-around and was the highlight of potent play on both ends for the Rio Hondo League champions.
“The defense they came in with changed the game,” said Spartans Coach Tamar Hill, who received 12 points from Miller, nine apiece from Keilee Bessho and Sarah Kurdoghlian, and a team-high 13 from Courtney Chen. “We worked on breaking it down yesterday in practice. But Alyssa went off and that always helps; Keilee made some good decisions from the high post and Courtney distributed the ball well, found Alyssa.”
Despite struggling offensively, the third-seeded Spartans (23-5) matched Oak Park’s tenacious defense and both teams went into halftime shooting less than 30% from the field.
Earlier in the half, the Eagles (18-11) scored the first five points of the second quarter to take a 17-10 lead, and prompted a La Cañada timeout.
The Spartans responded to their coaches by reeling off nine unanswered points, highlighted by an inbound play from Bessho that saw her bounce the ball off an Oak Park defender who had her back to Bessho, who capitalized and finished the play with a lay-up to start the run.
“That’s Keilee’s play. She ran it three times in summer league,” Hill said of Bessho’s inbound play that arguably resulted in the two points that shifted the momentum. “When she sees it, she’ll call it and everybody knows to get out of the way.”
The Eagles were also assessed a technical during La Cañada’s game-changing run due to an illegal substitution. Oak Park’s player entered the game at the sound of the horn from the scorer’s table, but was never signaled by the referee, who, in turn, penalized the Eagles.
Sarah Borland connected on the two technical free throws to give the Spartans a 19-17 lead that would not be relinquished for the remainder of the contest.
“Their home scorekeeper sounded the horn, so I don’t think we should have been given a technical, but you gotta play through those things,” Oak Park Coach Kenny Golub said. “They got hot, we got cold. Their home crowd gave them energy and motivated them to focus and knock down shots.”
Miller’s two treys in the third quarter, coupled with Chen’s 1:45 into the frame aided the Spartans in holding off the Eagles. As a team, La Cañada hit six of 15 field goals in the eight-minute stanza, while Oak Park continued to struggle despite good looks at the basket.
“Defensively, we packed it in and forced them to pass it out and they went cold,” Hill said. “They’re a very tough team. [Nina Winsick] is their best player and we did a good job on her. When Sophia [Lamb] was on her, she couldn’t do anything.
Winsick managed four points in the contest. Oak Park was led by 10 points from Courtney Wing.
The Eagles ran out of steam in the fourth quarter and the Spartans took advantage by grabbing their largest lead of the game (19) and cruising to a victory.
La Cañada will face a familiar opponent in Santa Margarita, a team the Spartans defeated in last year’s quarterfinal round.
“I know they’ll remember last year,” said Hill about the Eagles of Rancho Santa Margarita. “They added some freshmen on the team and they’ve got some height, so we’ll watch film and get ready.”