By Tom Jacoubowsky
The Gunn High girls' basketball team captured the first-ever Central Coast Section title in the sport in school history by holding off rival Palo Alto, 41-39, in the Division I championship game on Saturday at Santa Clara University's Leavey Center.
The No. 1-seeded Titans (19-6) had been to the section finals twice before as they lost to Mitty, 56-40, in Division II in 2009 and Palo Alto, 54-44, in Division I in 2011.
The Gunn boys' only appearance in the finals was when they lost to St Ignatius, 56-54, in 1981 when there was only one division.
On this night it was the incredible play of two seniors, Julia Maggioncalda and Cat Perez, that paved the way for a historic night.
Maggioncalda, who is the only team member to play in all three appearances for Gunn in the CCS finals, had her best game of the season with 15 points and Perez came through big in the clutch with 18 points and 11 rebounds.
"They all played great tonight," said Gunn coach Sarah Stapp. "Our seniors showed real leadership and it was a great game between two great teams."
In what was the closest Division I game since 1995 when Sacred Heart Prep defeated Monta Vista, 46-45, Gunn and Palo Alto showed the section that the best basketball for the past two years in Division I resides in the city limits of Palo Alto as the two team met for the second straight year in the final.
"It shows how strong our league is and what great basketball is played in our commuity," said Stapp. "All of the girls on both teams know each other and it raises everybody's game."
One Gunn player who was extremely happy after the game was Maggioncalda, who said it was one of the best games she every played.
"I was confident we were going to win," said Maggioncalda. "I was nervous before the game started, but once it started everything went well. This game meant so much to all of us and we really wanted to win it for Coach Stapp."
Maggioncalda was 6-of-9 from the floor including two three- pointers and, along with Perez, seemed to always make the key basket when needed.
Palo Alto got on the board first when Stephanie Allen hit a three pointer 15 seconds into the game, but for nearly the next five minutes, neither team scored a basket until Maggioncalda scored with 3:18 remaining in the first to tie the score at three.
Behind 5-3, Perez put Gunn up 8-5 with a three-pointer, followed by an inside basket by Maggioncalda on a nice assist from Jordan Humble.
In the second period, Maggioncalda got Gunn up 11-8 on a three- pointer, but Palo Alto quickly retook the lead on back to back baskets by Lindsay Black to go up 12-11.
Gunn then went on a 10-2 run to close out the half with most of the scoring coming in the final two minutes with the capper being Zoe Zwerling hitting two free throws after she was fouled at the buzzer of the first half.
Gunn's 21-14 lead at half turned out to be the largest in the game, but it was short lived as Palo Alto scored seven points in the first 1:13 of the second half on a three-pointer by Annie Susco and then Black, followed by a free throw by Allen to knot the score at 21.
Outside of the final two minutes of the first half and the first minute of the second half, along with a few seconds at the end, neither team ever led by more than three points on the night.
Emilie Osagiede put Palo Alto in the lead for the final time with a basket midway in the third at 25-23, but Zwerling answered that with a basket and then Maggioncalda converted another three to go up 28-25.
At the end of three the Titans led by 30-29 and extended it to 32-29 on two free throws by 6-foot-1 freshman Meghan Mahoney, who may have only scored two points and was credited with only four rebounds, but she played a big role in the win as she was an imposing figure in the middle as Palo Alto only shot 12-of-47 on the night.
Midway in the fourth it looked like Gunn had a chance to extend the lead when it had a three-on-one break, but a turnover resulted in an easy basket by Osagiede as Palo Alto cut the lead to 32-31
On Gunn's next possession with the shot clock running out, Maggioncalda answered right back with a drive to the basket to put Gunn up 34-31 with four minutes left. However, Palo Alto came back to tie it at 34 when Abby Strong hit a three-pointer with 2:34 to go.
Perez put Gunn up 36-34 with two free throws with 2:09 remaining, but Allen came back for Palo Alto with a basket to tie it at 36 with 1:35 left.
With one minute left, Perez broke the tie for good when she scored an inside basket to give Gunn a 38-36 lead.
Palo Alto failed to convert on its next possession and Maggioncalda hit one of two free throws to put Gunn up 39-36 with 34 seconds left.
Palo Alto had a couple of other opportunities to tie it, but key defensive plays by Perez, including a block shot while she was nursing four fouls, kept Gunn in control.
Perez, who played the final 5:17 with four fouls, iced the game with two free throws with eight seconds left to put Gunn up by five until Osagiede hit a three-pointer at the buzzer to cut the gap to two.
In addition to Maggioncalda and Perez points, the Titans got six from Zwerling and two from Mahoney.
Allen led Palo Alto with 12, followed by Black with nine, Osagiede with eight, five from Susco, three from Strong and two from Josie Butler.
"We tried to be more aggressive than they were," said Paly coach Scott Peters. "But, we weren't and that's why we lost the game."
The CCS title was Gunn's 35th as a school. Both Gunn and Paly now advance to the CIF NorCal playoffs, which start Wednesday. Gunn got the No. 7 seed on Sunday and will host No. 10 Mission- San Jose (27-3) at 7 p.m. Palo Alto got the No. 8 seed and also will host, taking on No. 9 Pleasant Grove (21-9) at 7 p.m.
Should Paly and Gunn advance, the Vikings would face No. 1 Berkeley (26-2) while the Titans would visit No. 2 Lowell of San Francisco (25-4).