From the start, state basketball title for Pinewood just meant to be
The stage evidently was set early for good things to happen to the Pinewood girls' basketball team when, in the second quarter, senior guard Emily Liang drove toward the lane and lost the handle slightly.
"I didn't want to lose it so I just wanted to tip it to someone," she said.
From just below the free-throw line, she tipped it straight into the basket, drawing a giant groan from the largely vacant Rabobank Arena and a giant smile from the entire Pinewood bench.
"You don't see that every day," Pinewood coach Doc Scheppler said. "When a shot like that goes in you know it's your day."
And it was indeed Pinewood's — though it had little to nothing to do with luck.
With what Scheppler called "great resolve" after losing last year's state title game and enduring an offseason of knee injuries, the Panthers basically put on a clinic, defeating a vastly taller and stronger St. Anthony's (Long Beach) team, 62-44, in the CIF State Division V championship game last Saturday in Bakersfield.
St. Anthony is the same squad that defeated the Panthers, 43-42, at the Nike Tournament of Champions in December.
"That also helped with our resolve," Scheppler said. "That's as well as any of our teams have played in a big-game setting."
That's saying something, considering Pinewood (27-6) won its fourth state title in five tries.
But the Panthers never trailed in utilized each of their small, but mighty weapons, led by 17 points from Miranda Seto, 16 from Hailie Eackles and 13 by Jenna McLoughlin, who didn't play in the first meeting against St. Anthony (26-10) because of an ACL injury.
The team's tallest player at 5-10, McLoughlin helped Pinewood improve a 53-15 rebounding disparity it endured at the Nike TOC, but not by a long way. St. Anthony, which got 11 points from Jordan Jackson, held a 41-25 edge on Saturday.
But McLoughlin's presence in the middle no doubt helped, as did a near-perfect game plan carried out to perfection.
"Pinewood played a great game and (Scheppler) definitely outcoached me," St. Anthony coach James Anderson said. "They made adjustments after the first game and we didn't. That's on me."
It helps when you're making shots and the Panthers did that, from all spots on the court. They made 6 of 18 three-pointers by five different players, including two by point guard Kelsey Morehead (eight points). Eackles and Seto made a variety of driving hoops, many of the spectacular variety.
None, of course, were more amazing that Liang's 14-foot tip shot.
"We hit a lot of big ones, but that one definitely deserved an OMG," Scheppler said.
The whole performance kind of did, right from the start.
Seto, Eackles and Morehead hit 3-pointers in the first quarter and though St. Anthony dominated the glass, it couldn't convert. Pinewood led 15-8 at the end of one.
In the second quarter, Eackles, a fantastic 5-foot-8 junior, took over. She had a pair of driving fastbreak hoops and McLoughlin hit a pair of interior buckets to make it Pinewood 34, St. Anthony 22 at halftime.
In the third, Liang started it off with a 3-pointer, Seto drove for a hoop and Eackles went end-to-end for another hoop. After a driving layup by St. Anthony's 6-3 freshman Kendall Cooper, the Panthers rattled off seven more in a row on a Seto jumper, a Morehead 3-pointer and two free throws from McLoughlin.
Pinewood was up 48-22 with 3:09 left in the third and this one was essentially over.
"We just didn't want to feel like we did last year (in the state-title game)," Seto said. "We came out here and we weren't nervous at all. We played like we can."