Top-seeded Pinewood (25-6) and No. 2 Bradshaw Christian (24-8) will meet on Saturday at Folsom High for the Northern California Division V championship at 1 p.m.
Bradshaw Christian fell to Pinewood in last year's NorCal semifinals, 79-35, before the Panthers went on to beat Branson in the finals. The Pride returns with much of the same talent from last year and most of it tall.
Bradshaw's starters are 6-foot-2, 6-1, 5-11, 5-9 and 5-0.
"They have size at every spot," said Pinewood coach Doc Scheppler.
In this 10th trip to the NorCal finals, Pinewood plans to counter Bradshaw Christian's height advantage the same way it did last year — with defensive pressure and a quick, attacking offense.
"We are going to pressure the ball. They have to bring the ball 75 feet up the court and we are going to make that a treacherous ordeal," Scheppler said. "Last year we forced turnovers early and hit shots early and we were up 35 at half. We are going to do everything we can to make this a full-court game."
The Pride will have to choose whether to stay in a zone, where its height is an advantage, or extend its defense to try to prevent Pinewood's usually potent three-point shooting. "Our style of play is such that it will be difficult for them to take away what we want to do," Scheppler said.
Pinewood and Bradshaw Christian have common opponents in Eastside Prep and Lowell of San Francisco. Pinewood beat Lowell, 62-50, and went 2-2 against Eastside Prep. Bradshaw Christian lost to Lowell, 46-40, and to Eastside, 53-33.
"All comparisons indicate we are a better team but you never know," Scheppler said. "We're looking at taking care of business. We were there last year. We know the gym, the venue and the type of pressure that exists in a NorCal championship game. We are excited to play in another NorCal championship game and we can't hide it."
The winner will advance to the Division V state championship game in Bakersfield on March 27 at 9:30 a.m., facing the winner of the St. Anthony-Montclair Prep game from the Southern California bracket.
Pinewood earned a trip to the NorCal finals for a second consecutive year, and the fourth time in six years, after beating visiting North Coast Section champion Branson, 51-40, last Saturday in the semifinals. Bradshaw Christian (Sacramento) advanced with a 50-39 win over Head-Royce in the other semifinal.
The usual high-scoring Panthers' offense was anything but to start the game. The Bulls (18-15) didn't allow Pinewood a field goal until its first possession of the second quarter and the usually sure-shooting Panthers made just two three-point attempts.
Both threes came in the second quarter as the Panthers regrouped and recovered from a 6-5 first quarter deficit. Jenna McLoughlin and fellow junior Miranda Seto each connected on long range jumpers, and McLoughlin's trey came right after her bucket on the previous possession and gave Pinewood its biggest lead of the half at 21-16.
McLoughlin continued her clutch play into the third quarter, where she scored 12 more of her game-high 20 points.
"Jenna was huge tonight," said Scheppler. "She was our matchup advantage tonight. When she came back from the injury she was 60 to 70 percent and she keeps getting stronger. She had 15 points in the CCS finals and now she's back to 90 percent."
McLoughlin returned a month ago from an early season knee injury and has been improving as the season wears on. She will get another week to build. She also had a team-high nine rebounds.
Pinewood's defense flourished in the pivotal third quarter. The Panther forced Branson into 10 turnovers and limited the Bulls to two field goals while gaining its biggest lead of the game, 41-24, going into the final quarter.
"Our start was because of nerves," Scheppler said. "We couldn't finish any play. We got to the rim we just couldn't finish cleanly. Once we got settled in the second quarter and then starting forcing turnovers we were alright."
Pinewood's offense was at its best when it spread the court for one-on-one matchups. It continued to run a spread court offense into the fourth quarter but focused on using the clock on each possession. Point guard Seto handled the ball under pressure and helped reduce Pinewood's turnovers in the second half. After eight in the first half, the Panthers cleaned it up and lost just two possessions in the third quarter.
Seto had 14 points and six rebounds and junior Hailie Eackles had six points, seven rebounds and pair of blocks and assists.
"We did a great job of defense," Scheppler said. "We kept them under pressure and forced some turnovers. It's great to be in the NorCal finals."