With just six players on their basketball roster, the Eastside Prep girls can't be as aggressive defensively as coach Donovan Blythe would like. Still, that hasn't stopped the Panthers from being dominant on defense so far in the CIF NorCal Division V playoffs.
After giving up just 13 points in its opening game of the tournament, top-seeded Eastside Prep beat No. 5 University (SF), 49-38, Tuesday night in the regional semifinal round in East Palo Alto.
"Defensively, I think we stepped it up," Blythe said. "Second half the girls took it to another level. That's our bread and butter. You want to win any championship, you gotta be able to play defense, and that's what we've been pushing all year."
Playing at home for the last time, Arizona-bound senior Destiny Graham scored 18 points and grabbed 12 rebounds and classmate Chacitty Cunningham scored all 11 of her points in the second half for the Panthers (24-5), who never trailed after halftime.
University (24-10) got 28 points from senior Katie Lo, but only 10 points combined from the supporting cast.
"We talked about at halftime, let her go ahead and score all the points and we take care of everyone else," Blythe said. "She started getting tired, too, because our defensive pressure is going to make you."
Coached by Mary Hile-Nepfel, the all-time leading scorer at the University of San Francisco and its head coach for 19 years, the visiting Red Devils led for most of the first half and went into halftime tied 19-19.
But Cunningham opened the second half with a 3-pointer, and then hit another trey to give the Panthers the lead for good at 27-24. University was still within four at 38-34 with three minutes to play when a 3-pointer by Eastside Prep senior Brije Byers all but sealed the win.
Freshman Kayla Tahaafe added 11 points for the Panthers, whose multiple scoring options was a big difference between the two teams.
Despite going 5 for 14 from the line, Eastside's defensive toughness and a misfiring Lo ensured that University couldn't come back.
Two games away from the Division V state title, six-player Eastside Prep next will face No. 2 Valley Christian-Dublin (31-3) in the regional final Saturday at 10 a.m. at American Canyon High. VC-Dublin advanced with a 52-34 win over St. Joseph Notre Dame.
"This ride has been great and I hope it continues for the girls, because they work so hard," Blythe said. "They're in the gym at 5:30 in the morning when everyone else is sleeping, so I'm happy for them."
Eastside Prep will be playing in the NorCal finals for the fourth time in Blythe's eight years as head coach. In their last trip, the Panthers lost to Pinewood two years ago at American Canyon.
"The beginning of the season, (with) three seniors, three freshmen, no one had us on any list," said Blythe. "The name Eastside didn't come up. Now we're a couple games away."