RANCHO SANTA MARGARITA — Early as it was, the first two minutes of Saturday evening’s CIF Southern Section Division 3-A semifinal at Santa Margarita High very much proved to be the deciding factor in the conclusion of the La Cañada girls’ basketball team’s season and the continuance of the host Eagles’.
In the game’s first 78 seconds, the Spartans were down by eight points and reigning All-Area Girls’ Basketball Player Courtney Chen was on the bench with two quick fouls.
Thus, despite a late, valiant charge by the Spartans, the early cushion was cushion enough, as second-seeded Santa Margarita, propelled by its full-court press, defeated third-seeded La Cañada, 69-57.
“It’s hard to get into any rhythm with Courtney on the bench,” said Spartans Coach Tamar Hill, whose Rio Hondo League champions now sit at 25-6 while hoping for a CIF State berth. “We worked on breaking [the press]. I think we kind of went into a shell a little bit.”
It was the second consecutive season in which La Cañada fell in the semifinals, only this time, it was to a Santa Margarita team that the Spartans dispatched in last year’s quarterfinals. With two freshmen and just one senior in the starting lineup, the Eagles (18-13) were a different bunch, though.
“It’s completely different,” said Santa Margarita Coach Matt Hosuer, whose team is an at-large entry out of the vaunted Trinity League and will play Inglewood, a 50-43 winner over South Pasadena, in the division final.
The game was physical from start to finish with a combined 61 fouls, with Santa Margarita drawing 31. The Eagles shot 30 of 48 from the floor, while the Spartans hits 28 of 41 in a game that was as physical as it was stop and go.
“There really wasn’t any flow to the game because it was so physical,” Hill said.
Chen’s early foul troubles limited her throughout. She returned in the second quarter with 6:26 to play, but left exactly two minutes later after her third foul. She finished the night with just seven points.
“When she came out of the game, that was a huge advantage and we capitalized on it,” Hosuer said.
La Cañada junior Keilee Bessho led the way for the Spartans with 19 points along with six rebounds and five steals.
“We’ve been struggling to play in the first quarter. That’s a reoccurring theme in our losses. We didn’t come out strong enough,” said Bessho, who added that despite practice against the press, it was a lot different facing an athletic and large Eagles squad. “I think the main difference is … those girls are so much bigger and when their arms are out, it looks huge. I think it freaked some people out. I know it freaked me out.”
Sophomore Sarah Kurdoglian had 10 points for the Spartans, while senior Aundrea Issakhanian had nine points and seven rebounds and junior Sophia Lamb added seven points and six boards.
“Courtney played one quarter of basketball,” Hill said. “Courtney played about eight minutes and we were still within nine points [in the fourth quarter].
“I’m proud of the rest of the team for keeping it [within reach].”
Senior Zaire Williams scored a game-high 24 points, while freshman Tori Anderson had 16 for the Eagles.
Down, 8-0, with 6:42 to play in the opening quarter, the Spartans fell behind by as much as 16-5 in the first stanza before ending the quarter trailing, 16-9.
Kurdoghlian threw up an off-balance floater from the free-throw line with 1:44 to go in the quarter for the Spartans’ first field goal. She then hit four free throws for the last four points of the stanza, but the tone had been set as Santa Margarita had seven steals in the quarter, forced a traveling call, a shot clock violation and began a game in which it forced 24 La Cañada turnovers.
Santa Margarita won the second quarter by a slim 14-12 margin to take a 30-21 lead at the half.
But the Eagles re-upped their intensity and full-court pressure in a third quarter that proved as disastrous as it was decisive for the Spartans.
La Cañada hit just one of 13 shots from the field and was held to 11 points, while Santa Margarita’s lead grew to 50-32 at the quarter’s end. A Kurdoghlian layup with 59 seconds to go in the period stood as the first and last field goal for the Spartans.
“You saw in the third quarter, [we] were pressing again,” Hosuer said.
The fourth quarter saw a late La Cañada surge with Bessho and Issakhanian scoring during a swing that cut the lead to 56-44. After Issakhanian’s layup with 4:49 to play, the teams combined for just two more made field goals, as free throws and more free throws took over.
In one sequence, six free throws were shot in a span from 3:59 to 3:58.
Still, the Spartans kept coming, drawing as close as 65-57 with 53 seconds to play, but Santa Margarita played tough defense and tacked on the last four points via four trips to the line to salt the game away.
“We had the surge, but the surge was too little too late. By that time, the clock was our enemy,” Hill said. “Obviously this isn’t where we wanted to end it, but hopefully we can go to state.
“Honestly, that fourth quarter, I have to be proud of them. They didn’t quit. I have a team full of fighters.”