In his two previous games against Pinewood this season, Eastside Prep head coach Donovan Blythe had opted to employ a zone defense for most of each contest to keep his depleted team fresh during the course of the games.
Pinewood capitalized against the zone defense in both matchups, penetrating the zone at will to set up open looks from beyond the arc. Pinewood defeated Eastside Prep both times, and ended up winning the girls' regular-season West Bay Athletic League (Foothill Division) title.
Eastside Prep (18-8) stuck to a man-to-man defensive formation for all but two minutes of the game, and the defensive strategy worked, holding Pinewood (24-2) to just 13 second-half points in a 41-36 Eastside Prep victory at King's Academy.
"Pinewood is a great team. I knew it was going to be a dogfight tonight," Blythe said. "(Pinewood head coach) Doc (Scheppler) knew it was going to be a dogfight too. I think Pinewood brings the best out of Eastside, and I think Eastside brings the best out of Pinewood. It's always a clean game when we play."
When asked how his five starters, who all played the entire game, were able to perform so well defensively down the stretch, all Blythe could do was chuckle.
"If I had the answer to that, I think I'd probably be a millionaire. I'd be able to bottle it and sell it," Blythe said. "They just have heart. They come out, they play hard, they don't complain. It's unbelievable what they are doing with just five players."
Eastside Prep's 6-foot-3 junior center Destiny Graham had 11 points, while senior forward Alexus Simon had 10 points. Junior guard Chacitty Cunningham also contributed 11 points with three 3-point field goals.
Senior point guard Marissa Hing led Pinewood with 15 points, and senior forward Leeana Bade chipped in eight points. Pinewood was held to just four made 3-pointers, tying their lowest output on the season.
"Being able to close out, it made it hard for them to shoot threes," Graham said. "We work a lot on that in practice."
Perhaps Eastside Prep's biggest offensive advantage came on the boards, as Cunningham and fellow guards Charmaine Bradford and Brije Byers, were relentless in attacking the offensive glass.
"A lot of times teams are not thinking of boxing guards out, they want to box the bigs out. So I told my (guards) that they could see where the ball is coming off, because they are on the perimeter," said Blythe.
"There are usually two or three bodies on me and Alexus Simon, and with the guards sneaking in, the other team doesn't expect guards to get rebounds," Graham added. "So that's how they were able to get those rebounds, because nobody was boxing them out."
Eastside Prep dominated early in the first quarter, running out to a 13-2 lead, as its swarming, man-to-man defense was too much for Pinewood to handle.
Pinewood was able to close the gap midway through the second quarter, as Hing and sophomore forward Chloe Eackles hit big 3-pointers to bring the deficit to just one.
Eastside Prep and Pinewood traded baskets for the rest of the quarter, and at halftime Eastside Prep still held a 28-23 lead.
Pinewood opened the third quarter on a 9-4 run to tie up the game at 32-32 with 3:40 remaining in the third. However, a single Graham bucket were the only points for the rest of the quarter, and Eastside Prep went into the fourth quarter hanging on to a 34-32 lead.
Eastside Prep appeared tired at the beginning of the fourth quarter, as turnovers became a major problem for the visiting Panthers. With 4:30 to go in the game, Pinewood forward Gabi Bade stole the ball on consecutive Eastside Prep possessions, leading to layups by Hing and Bade that cut the Eastside Prep advantage down to 37-36.
Pinewood never scored again, however, as the stifling Eastside Prep defensive caused Pinewood to turn the ball over four times in the last three minutes of the ballgame.
With under a minute to go, Eackles and Gabi Bade each had looks at potential game-tying 3-pointers, but neither shot went down, and Eastside Prep hung on for the victory.
The WBAL finals might not be the last match of the season between Eastside Prep and Pinewood, as the two schools could potentially face each other two more times. Both teams are expected to be selected for the Open Division of the CCS tournament and could face each other again in the NorCal Division V tournament, as well.
If the two schools do face off for a fourth or fifth time this season, Graham said she would look forward to the challenge.
"I want to see if we can bring it to them again," Graham said.