La Cañada High stymies Eagle Rock in state opener

EAGLE ROCK — La Cañada High’s girls’ basketball’s run in the CIF Southern Section Division III-A tournament ended in the semifinals with a road loss to the Eagles of Santa Margarita, who went on to win the III-A title, but that did not end the Spartans’ season.

La Cañada received an invitation to the CIF State Division III playoffs and got another shot at a squad of champion Eagles on the road, when it drew the Los Angeles City Section Division III champion Eagle Rock Eagles for a opening-round matchup.

As the final seconds ticked away with the two squads locked in a tie, Spartan Sarah Borland sank a three-pointer from the corner as time expired to lift her team to a 52-49 victory to advance and end the hosts’ year by handing them their first loss on their home court this season.

“I could feel it that it was going to be good,” Borland said of her game-winner.

La Cañada (24-6), the No. 9 seed, came out of a timeout with the ball and 18.9 seconds to go after forcing a tough shot at the other end. Senior guard Courtney Chen calmly dribbled down the seconds before driving into the lane.

“We were going to get the last shot. We’re not going to give them a little bit of time to come back,” Chen said. “If we’re going to shoot it, that was going to be our last shot and, if we didn’t make it, overtime.”

The senior then found Borland in the deep right corner, who sank the game-winner and was mobbed at center court.

“They have worked on that play for four years and they know exactly how to execute it,” La Cañada Coach Tamar Hill said. “Courtney drew the triple team, kicked it right to Sarah and Sarah just stepped up and didn’t hesitate with .0 seconds on the clock and just hits it. You can’t draw it up much better as a coach. To see your kids execute it exactly perfectly, it’s just really sweet. ... I’m so happy for both of them.”

It was the pair of four-year varsity seniors, Borland and Chen, who led the way for the Spartans. Borland finished with a team-high 19 points along with five rebounds and one assist.

Chen, who had a tough outing against Santa Margarita, scored all of her 15 points in the final three quarters, including 10 after the break, when the host Eagles led, 29-28.

Chen also had a team-high eight rebounds, two steals and four assists, with the final one keying the victory.

“Courtney stepped up at exactly the right time to do what she needed to do,” Hill said.

Spartan Keilee Bessho also came through with a strong overall effort against Eagle Rock (25-10), which had a 15-game win streak ended by Wednesday’s loss. The junior chipped in 10 points and grabbed seven rebounds, three assists, two blocks and five steals.

Borland came out of the blocks at a torrid pace, scoring 11 points in the first quarter, including three of her five makes from beyond the arc.

“Sarah came out lights out,” Hill said.

Eagle senior point guard Judith Espinoza matched Borland with 11 first-quarter points, but no other Eagle scored a point and La Cañada led, 18-11, after one.

“We came out pumped and were determined to win,” Borland said. “We all played really well as a team tonight and executed. We found the open gaps and passed really well.”

Espinoza was the offense for No. 8-seeded Eagle Rock, repeatedly and fearlessly pinballing into the lane on the way to recording 33 of her team’s 49 points. It included scoring all of her team’s points in the first and third quarters.

Espinoza made her final basket of her nine-point fourth quarter on a bank shot with just under three minutes to go to knot the contest at 49.

After that, the Spartans defense concentrated on getting the ball out of her hands or at least forcing her to put up hard shots.

Making the La Cañada victory even more impressive was that the Spartans played against Eagle Rock minus two of their regular starters, including Aundrea Issakhanian, who was out with a broken left ankle she suffered when she landed wrong in practice.

“We had a lot that we needed to make up for today,” Hill said of playing down two starters. “That’s exactly why I tell the kids I don’t care if you’re not getting the minutes you want, you always work hard at practice because you never know what’s going to happen and you never know when we’re going to need you. This was exactly one of those days where a lot of kids stepped up to do what they needed to do to put us in a position to win.”

Next for the Spartans will be a second-round game Saturday at top-seeded Santa Barbara (27-5).

“This is our senior year,” Chen said, standing with Borland after the game. “We want to go as long as we can go for.”

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