SANTA BARBARA — Having already delivered the program its greatest ascent, the La Cañada High girls’ basketball team delivered top-seeded Santa Barbara quite a fright on Saturday night.
Ultimately, though, the Spartans waned in the second half, thanks in large part to 29 total turnovers, and let a first-half advantage dissipate into a 55-43 loss to the Lady Dons in the second round of the CIF State Girls’ Basketball Division III playoffs at a noisy and hot Santa Barbara High gym.
“We had our chances tonight for sure; unfortunately, we couldn’t finish and we turned it over,” Spartans Coach Tamar Hill said.
Hill piloted the Spartans to a 24-7 record, a Rio Hondo League title, a CIF Southern Section Division III-A semifinal berth and a trip to the state tournament, the first-ever in program history according to school officials, which included an opening-round win over Eagle Rock.
“I’m really proud of them,” said Hill of her Spartans, who were led by senior guard Courtney Chen scoring a team-high 18 points to go with four rebounds, two steals and two assists.
The ninth-seeded Spartans employed a half-court pressure defense and slowed down the Lady Dons (28-5), the reigning Southern Section Division III-AA champions, in the opening half.
La Cañada jumped out to a quick lead in the first quarter and led throughout the first half, owning a 13-6 lead following the first period and a 23-15 advantage at the half. But Santa Barbara outscored La Cañada, 40-20, in the second half, thanks in most part to a game-changing 21-5 third-quarter advantage.
Of the 29 La Cañada turnovers, 11 came in the third stanza with the likely culprit being fatigue.
“I knew we were running out of gas at halftime,” said Hill, who also received six points from junior Sophia Lamb, five points and six rebounds from junior Haley Miller and five points from junior Keilee Bessho. “We looked sluggish [in the third quarter].”
In many ways, the Spartans made their final stand midway through the fourth, led by Chen, who scored six straight points in a span of 58 seconds to cut the score to 42-38. Santa Barbara answered with the next seven, however, and never led by less than nine the rest of the way.
“We did make a couple of adjustments [at halftime] tonight on [their] press,” said Santa Barbara Coach Randy Butcher of what changed for his squad. “[Chen] figured it out in the fourth and was able to dribble around us.
“That [Chen’s] a tough kid. … She really carries the team on her back.”
In many ways that was true on Saturday, as Chen also struggled with turnovers and shot two of seven from the free-throw line in the quarter’s first two minutes, but still brought the Spartans to within 36-32. Thereafter, she captained the comeback charge and scored six of the Spartans’ final 13 points of the season and assisted on two more.
“That’s all my part,” said Chen of the turnovers, putting her team’s struggles on her shoulders.
Chen was exhausted after a grueling game in a rather hot gymnasium, but said she wouldn’t have had it any other way.
“You can’t ask for a better atmosphere,” Chen said. “Their fans were great for their team, our fans were great for us. … This is what you want.
“It was hot in there, but you can’t blame it on the heat. You have to play through it. … We never quit.”
Santa Barbara was led by 26 points from sophomore forward Amber Melgoza, while sophomore wing Jada Howard chipped in 13, including three three-pointers, two coming in the fourth.
La Cañada, playing its third straight road game, got the first points of the game on a layup by Chen and never trailed en route to building a 7-2 lead off a Bessho three-pointer. A Lamb layup and a layup by Chen off her own steal with 19 seconds left added up to the final four points of the first quarter and the Spartans led, 13-6, despite six turnovers.
Turnovers proved more costly in the second quarter, with back-to-back steals by Melgoza leading to buckets and capping a seven-point run for Santa Barbara that tied the game at 15.
Marie Weston scored off a Bessho assist to retake the lead and begin a seven-point run the other way, with Chen caroming in a three with 29 seconds left in the half en route to a 23-15 halftime edge.
“We had no patience on offense,” said Butcher, whose team struggled shooting in the first 16 minutes, hitting just seven of 36 field goals. “You gotta have some patience when you play a good team.
“[La Cañada] did a great job on defense taking away a few things.”
But in a quick sign of fortune to come, Howard banked in a three-pointer to open the second half 30 seconds in.
“When you open the bank, it’s not good,” Hill said.
The next four points went Santa Barbara’s way, both coming off steals in a 26-second span.
“The problem with the turnovers in the third quarter was they were assists to the other team,” Hill said.
A 12-2 run opened the quarter for the Lady Dons and gave them their first lead of the game.
Chen brilliantly weaved her way past three defenders on a coast-to-coast run for a layup with 4:23 to play in the third that gave the Spartans a 28-27 lead. But it would be the last lead of the game for them, as Santa Barbara scored the last nine points.
“Literally, Courtney was exhausted,” Hill said, “and she played her fanny off.”
Thus, though the season concluded and she was clearly disheartened, Chen was happy that she and her teammates left it all on the court.
“At the end of it, you want to look back and think where we could have done things differently, but you just want to go all out, you want to leave it all out there. We left it all out there,” Chen said. “That’s all that matters is what we leave out there.”