Every contest and every victory is being dedicated to Eastside Prep junior Takara Burse, who underwent knee surgery on Tuesday and will miss the remainder of the season.
Burse, who was averaging 13 points and eight rebounds, will be sorely missed in a number of ways. Not only was the starter a key member of this season's successful team, but she also gave head coach Donovan Blythe an all-important seventh player on his squad.
The Panthers now are down to six. Blythe rarely plays sophomore Cinthia Cunningham, who acts more of an insurance policy should any of the starters foul out. Thus, Eastside Prep will continue its remarkable journey with the smallest squad in the Central Coast Section.
The Panthers are 3-0 in the West Bay Athletic League (14-2 overall) and have won nine straight following a thrilling 41-38 victory over host Castilleja on Wednesday night. Things looked very bleak for the Panthers as they took the floor for the fourth quarter, trailing by nine points. That, however, was before junior Ahjalee Harvey took control. Harvey scored 14 points in the fourth quarter and finished with 26 to carry the Panthers to a stirring triumph that dropped Castilleja to 1-2 (12-3 overall).
"The whole focus is on an injured player (Burse)," Harvey explained. "We had to come together. We're doing this for other people on the team. I had to focus and take charge."
With Burse sitting on the bench with her surgically repaired knee propped up and her crutches nearby, Harvey went to work with her team trailing by 34-25 with just one quarter remaining.
"Our players' energy was low," Harvey said of the third-quarter deficit. "Someone had to step it up . . . I had to be the one to pick up the momentum."
Harvey did just that after going scoreless in the second quarter.
"I had to break pattern with her," explained Blythe. "Instead of her getting others involved, we needed her to be more aggressive."
Blythe basically told Harvey at halftime that it was time to show what kind of player she is. Harvey and her teammates were in foul trouble and senior Felicia Anderson was off on her game (she finished with just six points). The Panthers needed a spark and Harvey filled that role.
Castilleja grabbed its seemingly safe nine-point lead entering the fourth quarter after senior Eve Zelinger hit a three-pointer and a basket to close the third. All the Gators needed to do at that point was score enough points, take care of the ball and run time off the clock. Castilleja, however, did none of them.
The Gators opened the fourth with three straight turnovers while Harvey took control of the game and scored on back-to-back layins. After a free throw, another layin and three of four free throws by Harvey, Eastside Prep was within 36-35. Freshman Hashima Carothers scored her only basket of the game to give Eastside Prep a 37-36 lead with 3:35 left to play. Castilleja went in front for the final time when Zelinger followed in a shot for her 20th, and final, points with 2:50 left. The Gators did not score again.
Harvey scored again with 1:21 left for a 39-38 lead and, essentially, the winning points. After Castilleja missed three free throws with under 50 seconds to play, Harvey hit a pullup jumper with 11 seconds left to give her team a 41-38 lead. Castilleja still had a final shot to tie with five seconds to play, but Zelinger's inbounds pass went directly into Carothers' hands. The Panthers ran out the clock and had themselves a stirring comeback victory as they outscored the Gators in the final quarter, 16-4.
Castilleja had its streak of 117 consecutive wins when leading at the end of the third quarter snapped. The Gators' last such loss came in December 2003.
Harvey, Anderson and Ausjerae Holland all finished the game with four fouls. Nonetheless, all played hard. Eastside Prep even pressed full court to open the game and kept applying the pressure throughout. That forced Castilleja into too many mistakes that ultimately cost the Gators a big victory.
"To be down and to be able to fight back like that . . . I don't think they (his players) lost their composure. It's a tough league, especially with five players."
Eastside Prep's streak and first place will be on the line Friday when the Panthers visit Menlo (2-0, 10-4), the only other unbeaten team in the WBAL, at 5 p.m.
In the PAL Bay Division, Menlo-Atherton ended a brief two-game losing streak by posting a 46-39 triumph over visiting Burlingame on Tuesday evening. The Bears, who have been strengthened by the return of Victoria Fakalata, got 12 points from sophomore Tennyson Jellins and 11 from Fakalata in holding off Burlingame. Menlo-Atherton (1-2, 6-11) pulled away in the third quarter and took a 36-27 lead into the fourth period.
In the SCVAL De Anza Division, Palo Alto let a five-point lead entering the fourth quarter slip away as the Vikings dropped a 49-47 decision to host Mountain View on Tuesday night. The victory kept the Spartans (4-1, 11-7) in sole possession of first place while Paly (2-2, 9-5) fell into a four-way tie for third place.
Palo Alto dominated the boards as Emilee Osagiede grabbed 12 rebounds, Katerina Peterson had 10 and Lindsey Black pulled down six. Paly held a 47-46 lead with 33 seconds to play before Mountain View scored on a layin with under 20 seconds to play. The Vikings failed to get off a shot in the final seconds and wound up turning the ball over 24 times.
With plenty at stake in next week, Palo Alto perhaps reached a crossroad on Wednesday as it trailed Los Altos in a SCVAL De Anza Division game.
"We were down 35-28 with seven minutes to go in the game," said Paly coach Bob Roehl, who challenged his team to be better. "The players just started playing like they were capable of playing."
The Vikings responded to the advice with a 24-point four quarter to wrap up a 52-38 victory over the host Eagles. The victory vaulted Paly (3-1, 10-6) ahead of Los Altos (3-2, 11-5) and into a tie for second place (with Fremont) in the division.
The importance of Palo Alto responding and rallying will be played out over the next week when the Vikings visit Fremont (3-1, 10-6) next Wednesday before hosting first-place Los Gatos (4-0, 15-1) on Jan. 29 to begin the second half of league play. The Wildcats handed the Vikings their only loss two weeks ago.
Paly senior Brendan Rider sparked the rally, hitting back-to-back baskets (one a three-pointer) to bring the Vikings to within 35-33 in the fourth. Joseph Lin scored in the lane, Rider hit two free throws and Kevin Brown hit a short jumper and Paly was in front to stay. The Vikings forced six turnovers during the spurt and outscored the Eagles, 18-0.
"We stopped turning the ball over when we had steals and fast-break opportunities," Roehl said. "We started making shots that we were missing in the first three quarters. Brendan Rider was fantastic . . . Max Schmarzo also hit a three in the run that broke the game open Davante Adams played excellent defense along with Charlie Jones."
Rider led the way with 13 points while fellow seniors Lin and Brown combined for 23. Paly will host Homestead on Friday at 7:45 p.m., before heading into next week's two key games.
In other De Anza Division games Wednesday, Fremont downed winless Wilcox, 53-51, and Los Gatos topped Homestead. Gunn (1-3, 8-8) returns from a bye to host Los Altos on Friday at 7:45 p.m.
In the PAL Bay Division, Menlo-Atherton (1-2, 9-8) dropped a 49-36 decision to visiting Burlingame on Wednesday.
In the WBAL on Tuesday, junior Reed McConnell knocked down five three-pointers and finished with a season-high 27 points to pace Sacred Heart Prep to a 69-47 thumping of host Priory in Portola Valley. SHP senior Ty Cobb added 10 points and helped limit Priory senior Levente Juhos to just 11 points as the Gators remained a game back of Harker (5-0) at 4-1 (10-5 overall). The host Panthers (2-3, 7-7) welcomed back Brandon Willhite, who scored 11 points in his first game back from injury. Alex Peyer led Priory with 14 points.
Despite a season-high 26 points from Leslie Gray, Eastside Prep was unable to upset first-place Harker and dropped a 53-41 decision in WBAL action. The Panthers fell to 0-5 in league (2-12 overall).