Palo Alto Weekly

Sports - March 7, 2014

Seven teams are playing for five titles

Busy weekend with section crowns and CIF NorCal berths on the line

by Andrew Preimesberger

Independence High in San Jose will be the center of the basketball world for local high school teams on Saturday as four Central Coast Section championships will be on the line. For those who don't mind sitting in a gym for some eight hours, it's like one-stop shopping.

Starting at 2 p.m., the Menlo School and Castilleja girls will play for the Division IV crown. Two hours later, the Sacred Heart Prep boys will take on Harker in the Division IV finals. At 6 p.m., the girls' Division I title will be decided between Gunn and North Salinas, followed by the boys' Division I championship between Menlo-Atherton and Bellarmine.

Setting the stage for that marathon day, the Pinewood and Priory boys will meet in the Division V finals on Friday at Notre Dame De Namur University in Belmont at 6 p.m.

A total of seven local teams will be playing for section basketball titles this weekend, with only the winners earning a berth into next week's CIF Northern California playoffs that will include the Eastside Prep and Pinewood girls. They earned automatic berths by playing in the CCS Open Division this week.

While the Gunn girls played only 15 regular-season basketball games this season, the numbers game evidently hasn't worked against the Titans.

For the second straight year, Gunn defeated Piedmont Hills in the CCS Division I semifinals. That means for the fourth straight season, the Titans find themselves in the section championship game — hoping to win their third straight crown.

Wednesday's 39-27 victory over Piedmont Hills set everything into motion as the Titans moved to 10-7 and edged the No. 4 Pirates' season at 20-9.

"We want state," Gunn first-year head coach Melanie Murphy boldly stated. "I expect a CCS championship from them and they know that. Even in the locker room that's what we're looking forward to — those are our expectations."

Gunn senior guard Zoe Zwerling sank two clutch free throws to give her team a comfortable 37-27 lead with 22.6 remaining in the fourth quarter. On the next Titan possession, Zwerling went to the line again and drained two free throws, sealing the win.

Zwerling is no stranger to CCS playoffs. In her high school career she has been a part of five Gunn playoffs teams — four in basketball and one in water polo.

Gunn went on a 9-0 run in the second quarter when junior Meghan Mahoney scored on a layup, giving the Titans a 18-9 lead. The Titans' defense was tough all game long as they held the Vikings to a 4:11 scoring drought during the quarter.

"We got a lot of stops on defense," said Murphy. "They were communicating and talking and did everything that we've asked them to do at practice. All positive thoughts, especially on our defensive effort."

Mahoney finished off the third quarter by sinking a free throw and giving the Titans a 27-24 lead going into the fourth quarter. The junior finished 7 of 10 from the line and totaled 11 points in addition to grabbing 13 rebounds.

The Gunn defense came up big again in the fourth quarter and gave up only three points to the Pirates' offense.

"I talked to the team before the quarter and told them 'This is do or die and this will end our season if we lose' so I think that kind of stuck with people," said Zwerling. "It's easy to get caught up in the heat of the game, but once we realized what was really on the line we saw what we had to do and we shut them down."

In the first semifinal at Gunn High, No. 3 seed Palo Alto dropped a 51-41 decision to No. 2 North Salinas. The Vikings (12-13) forged a 17-17 halftime deadlock but were outscored 13-5 in the third quarter and couldn't make up the difference.

"We got the shots we wanted and we just missed them," said Palo Alto head coach Scott Peters. "We played hard and I thought our defense was good. Sometimes you can't control the ball going in the hole."

On North Salinas' last eight possessions of the game, it converted 10 of 16 free throws.

Palo Alto freshman Lauren Koyama and senior Hope Crockett each nailed a three in the first quarter to give the Vikings the early 9-7 lead going into the second. Vikings freshman Skylar Burris made two free throws with 58 seconds left in the second quarter, tying the game at halftime. The Vikings shot an appalling 4 of 36 from the field and only 46 percent from the line in the first half.

"The effort was good and we got the shots we wanted —they just didn't go in," said Peters.

The third quarter didn't get any prettier for the Vikings as the offense went on a four-minute scoring drought and produced only two field goals. North Salinas increased its lead to 30-22 to end the quarter.

Palo Alto's shooting stayed ice cold in the fourth quarter as it converted only 3 of 10 free throws. The Vikings suffered 24 turnovers and shot a dreadful 18 percent from the field.

"We have to use a hard loss as motivation to work harder in the off season," said Peters, who started three freshmen and two sophomores. "Finishing is something that the girls have to work on so I hope that will motivate them. They're great girls to coach. They wanted to get better and support the team, and as a coach, that's all you can ask for."

Open Division girls

Fourth-seeded Pinewood and No. 7 Eastside Prep can set their sights in next week's NorCal Division V playoffs after dropping semifinal games on Tuesday.

Pinewood (25-3) fell to top-seeded Sacred Heart Cathedral, 57-47, while Eastside Prep (18-10) suffered a tough 64-57 double-overtime loss to host Mitty.

Senior Leeana Bade led Pinewood with 19 points. The Panthers lost junior guard Marissa Hing to fouls midway through the fourth quarter.

Eastside Prep battled No. 3 Mitty (17-11) evenly throughout, deadlocking the game at the end of regulation (44-44) and again after the first overtime (51-51) before the Monarchs pulled away. Junior Destiny Graham led Eastside Prep with 20 points with Alexus Simon adding 19.

Division IV girls

Menlo School and Castilleja didn't get a chance to face each other during the West Bay Athletic League season. The Knights played in the Foothill Division and the Gators in the Skyline Division.

Both teams will be in the Foothill Division next season and a preview of those meetings will take place this weekend after both squads advanced to the Division IV finals.

Fifth-seeded Castilleja (20-9) reached its first-ever finale since moving up to Division IV with a dominating 48-28 semifinal victory over No. 1 seed and host Notre Dame-Belmont (10-17).

Earlier in the evening on the same floor, No. 2-seeded Menlo (17-11) took a step closer to defending its D-4 crown with a 43-40 win over No. 6 King's Academy (21-7).

"I'm stoked," said Menlo senior Donya Dehnad, who finished with 16 points. "We've been working really hard and I think that it shows on the court. I think the fact that everyone underestimated us and didn't think we would get here has really motivated us to work hard and prove them all wrong."

With 34 seconds left in the game, Menlo sophomore Mackenzie Duffner was fouled then sank one out of two free throws, giving Menlo a 42-40 lead. King's Academy had a chance to tie the game, but a traveling violation turned the ball over to Menlo.

Menlo took advantage of a great defensive effort that forced 29 turnovers.

"We like to have an up-tempo game," said Menlo head coach John Paye. "We did create a lot of turnovers and we did get in some foul trouble, but I was happy with our team play."

The Menlo defense was sturdy again in the third quarter as King's Academy went on a five-minute scoring drought and was able to score only two points for the quarter total.

With King's Academy down by three points with six seconds left in the game, Menlo's defense was huge again and didn't let the visitors get off a shot to tie the game, sealing the win.

In the second semifinal, Castilleja avenged a 24-point season-opening loss to ND-Belmont in December. In that game, Paige Vermeer did not play due to injury.

Vermeer, this season's WBAL Skyline Division MVP, made her presence felt against the Tigers on Tuesday with a career-high 26 points and six steals.

Despite losing center Yasmeen Afifi for part of the first half due to injury, the Gators led 20-11 at halftime. With Vermeer scoring 11 points, Castilleja extended its lead to 34-18 after three quarters. The Tigers opened the fourth quarter on a 6-0 run, but could get no closer as the Gators' fullcourt zone press held an opponent to 30 or fewer points for the 10th time this season.

Afifi returned in the second half and finished with her 12th double-double, with 11 points and 12 rebounds.

Division I boys

Menlo-Atherton kept its surprising season alive by advancing to the CCS title game for the first time since 2008 with a 60-46 win over No. 7 seed Homestead at Independence High. The No. 3-seeded Bears (18-8) will face No. 4 Bellarmine (11-16) in the finals after the Bells advanced with a 55-53 double-overtime win over No. 1 San Benito. Bellarmine has won five of the past six Division I titles.

Menlo-Atherton advanced by scoring 27 points in the fourth quarter as the Bears made 17 of 21 foul shots. Royce Branning led the way with 21 points.

Division IV boys

Sacred Heart Prep will play for its fourth CCS Division IV title in five years after the top-seeded Gators (19-7) rolled to a 62-45 semifinal victory over No. 4 Palma (16-10) on Tuesday night at Menlo School.

The Gators will face No. 6 Harker (18-9) in the title game on Saturday. Sacred Heart Prep and Harker played twice during the WBAL regular season, with the teams splitting. The Eagles' victory in the second meeting cost the Gators sole possession of first place.

Junior Corbin Koch had a game-high 22 points for SHP with sophomore Mason Randall adding 18, 15 coming on 3-pointers. A 35-23 advantage in the second half, during which Randall drained a trio of 3-pointers, proved to be the difference for the Gators.

Division V boys

WBAL rivals Pinewood and Priory will meet for a third time this season, this time for the CCS championship on Friday after both won in Pacifica.

Top-seeded Pinewood (22-4) advanced with a 59-49 win over host Alma Heights while No. 2 Priory (16-9) moved on with a 55-53 overtime win over No. 3 St. Francis-Central Coast Catholic.

Andy Isokpehi led Priory with 20 points while Scott Harris added 13 and Connor Bonfiglio 10.

Pinewood will be seeking its fourth straight CCS title while making its fifth straight appearance. Ryan Brice led the Panthers with 23 points with Greg Naumann adding 11.

"I thought our effort was right on point vs. Alma Heights as we controlled much of the game," said Pinewood coach Mani Messy.

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