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by Keith Peters
Palo Alto Online Sports
As the Menlo-Atherton girls' basketball team prepared to enter the Central Coast Section playoffs with a losing record and a No. 10 seed, senior Victoria Fakalata made a bold prediction: The Bears' goal would be to reach the section championship game.
"I couldn't believe that," said M-A coach Pam Wimberly. "I was just hoping to make it to the quarterfinals."
As it has turned out, both Fakalata and Wimberly reached their goals. The Bears played -- and won -- in the quarterfinals last Saturday and on Wednesday night they earned a berth in the CCS Division I championship game with a 54-51 overtime victory over Evergreen Valley at Mission College in Santa Clara.
Good thing someone was dreaming big for the Bears.
"They believe," Wimberly said of her team.
The Bears certainly have made believers of those who didn't think they had a chance, after compiling only an 11-15 record prior to CCS. M-A, in fact, had to win its final game of the regular season to get in. Now, four victories later, the Bears are playing in their first championship game since 2006 and have a chance to win their first section title since 1993.
Getting a big three-pointer from senior Jessica Tuliau and four free throws from Sarah Mitchell, all in overtime, Menlo-Atherton held off No. 2-seeded Evergreen Valley (18-8). The Bears (15-15), who have beaten the No. 2 and 3 seeds back to back, will play No. 1 seed North Salinas (23-3) in Saturday's section title game at Santa Clara University at 6 p.m. North Salinas advanced with a 25-24 win over No. 5 San Benito.
Menlo-Atherton last won a CCS title in 1993.
The Bears won their fourth straight CCS game by overcoming some poor shooting, too many turnovers and losing starting post players Victoria Fakalata and Tennyson Jellins to fouls. Fakalata took a seat for good after scoring 18 points and with 3:08 left in regulation with the game tied at 41. Moments later, Jellins picked up her fifth foul after scoring 10 points. Evergreen Valley made one of two free throws for a 43-42 lead.
Despite losing those two key players, Tuliau hit two free throws with 1:26 to play for a 44-43 lead. The Cougars, however, tied the game with 45.1 seconds left. M-A had the ball with 17 seconds to play, but could not get off a winning shot.
In overtime, Wimberly had to rely on reserves like Sarah Watson and Sarah Mitchell to fill in. Mitchell came up big by making four free throws to give the Bears a 48-44 lead. After Evergreen tied it at 48 with 1:49 to play, Tuliau drained a big three-pointer for a 51-48 lead with 31 seconds to play.
Still, it wasn't over. Sela Tupou made one of two free throws for a 52-48 lead and Tuliau did the same for a 53-48 game. But, Evergreen's Jennifer Le connected on an NBA trey with 7.6 seconds to play to close the gap. Tuliau was fouled on the ensuing inbounds play and made one of two to seal the victory.
Girls' Division V
Castilleja advanced to the championship for the second straight year as junior Natasha von Kaeppler scored 27 points to spark the No. 3-seeded Gators to a 45-34 victory over No. 2-seeded Eastside Prep on Wednesday night at St. Francis-Central Coast Catholic in Watsonville.
Castilleja will face top-seeded Pinewood (22-6) in the CCS finals on Saturday morning at Santa Clara University at 10 a.m. Pinewood, which defeated host St. Francis-CCC, 51-27, will be playing for its 12th section crown while Castilleja will be seeking its first.
The Gators (20-8) never trailed against Eastside Prep as they kept a safe distance from the Panthers for the most part. Leading by a point after a quarter, Castilleja opened the second frame with 10 straight to push its lead to 11. Eastside fought back, answering with seven straight of its own to pull to within four, but Castilleja pulled ahead and led by seven at halftime.
In the second half, Castilleja continued its shutdown defense while von Kaeppler scored 10 of her game-high 27 points, a school record for CCS play. Eastside was only able to trim two points off of Castilleja's halftime advantage. In the fourth, the Gators slowly put the game out of reach. Castilleja scored the first eight points in the final frame, receiving timely baskets from Tayo Amos and Lauren Rantz as the Gators' lead grew to 13. Castilleja was able to bleed the clock over the final four minutes as Eastside failed to cut away at the deficit.
Eastside's leading scorer, Ahjalee Harvey was held to 17 points as Amos and Riya Modi did not allow the versatile junior to get into a rhythm. What really hurt the Panthers was not having senior Felicia Anderson in the lineup for the second straight game. With Anderson out, it was easier for the Gators to concentrate their efforts in slowing Harvey down. In two earlier victories over Castilleja, Harvey had scored a total of 56 points.
Castilleja senior Eve Zelinger was held without a field goal for the first time in her career, snapping a school-record streak of 109 games with at least one basket. The Panthers were determined to not let Zelinger take over the game as they played a box-and-one defense on the senior shooting guard. That, however, allowed von Kaeppler to dominate inside.
In the other Division V semifinal in Watsonville, Pinewood will have the opportunity to shoot for a 12th section championship following an impressive 51-27 victory over host St. Francis-Central Coast Catholic. The top-seeded Panthers (22-6) will take on No. 3 Castilleja (20-6) for the division title on Saturday at Santa Clara University at 10 a.m. The game will be a rematch of last year's CCS title game, won by Pinewood.
Pinewood blew the game open with a 25-3 run over the final 11 minutes of the first half, triggered by a 17-3 bulge in the second quarter. St. Francis-CCC was held to 1-of-12 shooting during that run as Pinewood's swarming defense forced 10 turnovers. Holding on to a 34-14 halftime lead, the game was effectively over at that point as Pinewood had too much depth, talent and quickness for the host Sharkes.
Pinewood junior Hailie Eackles led the way with 21 points while fellow junior Miranda Seto added nine.
Boys' Division V
Pinewood advanced to the finals for the first time in 14 years with a 53-45 semifinal victory over Marina on Wednesday at Los Altos Hills. The No. 2-seeded Panthers (19-6) will face No. 1 St. Francis-Central Coast Catholic (26-1) in the section title game on Saturday at Santa Clara University at noon. St. Francis-CCC advanced with an 81-50 romp over No. 4 St. Tomas More.
Pinewood started with a dismal 1-for-15 shooting but rallied with a 20-point third quarter to take a lead it never surrendered. Max Lippe led Pinewood with 23 points and 15 rebounds. Kyle Riches, who returned last game from a broken hand that sidelined him for most of league play, started slowly but provided 11 second-half points and shutdown defense on Marina's leading scorer, Thor Wiles. He was held to four points on 1-of-5 shooting in the second half.
"Marina was unbelievably athletic and scrappy and they fought hard," said Pinewood coach Jason Peery. "I'm proud of our guys who made a huge breakthrough tonight for our school. It's been a long time and I'm so impressed with the poise they keep showing and they way they're executing down the stretch in close games."
Pinewood's man-to-man defense held Marina to 8-of-26 shooting in the second half with no three pointers.