Eastside Prep coach Donovan Blythe got the best birthday gift possible as his girls presented him with a return trip to the Division V finals of the CIF State Basketball Championships on Saturday.
The top-seeded Panthers captured their second straight NorCal title with a 65-59 victory over No. 2 seed St. Joseph Notre Dame (26-9) on Saturday morning at American Canyon High.
"They're a fun group," Eastside Prep coach Blythe said of his young team. "I've never seen a bunch of freshmen and sophomores with that sense of leadership. We want to keep this going."
The Panthers (19-11) will face SoCal champion Village Christian of Sun Valley (26-8), a 58-33 winner over No. 2 Mission Prep in that title game. Village Christian was seeded only No. 8, but defeated the No. 9, No. 1 (Flintridge Prep) and No. 5-seeded teams on the way to the finals. This will be Village Christian's first state title game.
Eastside Prep and Village Christian will meet in the state finals Thursday (10 a.m.) at Sleep Train Arena in Sacramento. The Panthers lost last year's title game, 40-36, to La Jolla Country Day in their first-ever state finale.
Alayah Bell led four Eastside Prep players in double figures on Saturday with 21 points, despite nursing a leg injury. Fellow sophomore Ra'Anna Bey added 11 points plus nine rebounds for the Panthers, who won their eighth straight. Freshman Zion Gabriel finished with 15 points and freshman Kayla Mahan added 10.
That foursome, along with sophomore Kayla Tahaafe, accounted for every point in the Panthers' NorCal victories in the finals and semifinals.
On Saturday, the Panthers went on a 13-4 run to start the second quarter to open a significant 40-23 halftime lead. St. Joseph Notre Dame started double-teaming on defense and rallied to trim its deficit to four in the third period, but Eastside Prep again caught fire and closed the third quarter on a 14-6 run to take a 58-46 advantage into the final period.
Village Christian is led by 5-foot-7 sophomore Leslie Aguilar, who is averaging 14.5 points and 4.8 rebounds per game, and 6-4 junior Mercy Odima, who is averaging 13.1 ppg and 13.2 rebounds.
Division I boys
Despite posting a victory over Berkeley in December, Menlo-Atherton couldn't duplicate the feat and dropped a 61-51 decision to the Yellowjackets in the NorCal Division I basketball finals on Saturday at Sleep Train Arena in Sacramento.
The No. 5-seeded Bears (28-5) won the Tim Cole Classic title in December by defeating Berkeley, 58-54. With Berkeley (24-8) seeded No. 7 for NorCals, it appeared M-A had a shot at repeating its earlier victory.
Berkeley, however, held an 11-10 first quarter lead and was up 28-26 at halftime. With three quarters gone, Berkeley was still in front, 40-37, as the Yellowjackets were shooting 50 percent from the field. That lead was extended to 54-48 with 2:41 left. M-A just couldn't make up the deficit while playing in its first NorCal title game since 1989.
Defense was a key element in M-A's success this season. But Berkeley shot just a shade under 50 percent -- connecting on 22 of 45 from the floor for the game -- and that proved to be too much to overcome.
Blake Henry led the Bears with 16 points and fellow senior Lucas Fioretti added 12. Henry gave the Bears a 37-36 lead on a 3-pointer in the third period, but Berkeley went on a 22-11 run to take a 10-point lead at 58-48.
Open Division girls
After shooting a blistering 16 of 29 from 3-point range against the nation's top team in the semifinals, Pinewood couldn't keep up its hot shooting and dropped a 73-40 decision to No. 2-seeded Miramonte in the NorCal Open Division championship game on Saturday at Sleep Train Arena in Sacramento.
The No. 4-seeded Panthers (24-6) never were in the game against Miramonte (32-0) as Pinewood was 2 of 21 from the field while falling behind by 15-8 after one quarter. Miramonte was up by 34-15 at one point as the Panthers were 4 of 35 from the field. At the end of three periods, Miramonte was looking ahead to the state finals while leading 53-23.
Pinewood finished 13 of 59 from the field for 22 percent. The Panthers shot 17 percent for 3-pointers (4 of 23), turned the ball over 17 times and had just two assists.
The loss for Pinewood marked the end of lone senior Chloe Eackles' prep career. She finished with 10 rebounds. The rest of the talented cast will return.
Division IV girls
Menlo School saw its hopes of reaching the fourth state championship game in program history fall by the wayside following a 51-32 loss to No. 1 seed Cardinal Newman (30-5) in the NorCal Division IV finals on Saturday at American Canyon High.
The Knights (21-8), who had never lost a NorCal title game in three previous tries, fell behind early and trailed at halftime, 26-13, after scoring the final five points of the half.
Menlo struggled the entire day on offense, with sophomore Mallory North and junior Sam Erisman leading the Knights in scoring with 10 and nine points, respectively. Olivia Pellarin and Mackenzie Duffner each had five rebounds.
"We tried, we put it all out there today, but they had some tall, tough girls that really hurt us for fouls, and when we started getting fouls we were a little more cautious which hurt us overall," Duffner said. "We came back really strong (in the second half) the energy was there. All the luck to them as they represent Northern California."
Hannah Paye and fellow seniors Pellarin and Duffner finished their careers with three Central Coast Section Division IV championships, one CCS Open Division entry and four NorCal career victories.
"We were very strongly led by our senior class," Menlo coach John Paye said. "We really attribute our won-lost record, being resilient, and playing everyone tough to their leadership. Playing some of the best teams in the state in Salesian Pinewood, Eastside Prep to Cardinal Newman, they were always there and always answered the bell. "I'm really going to miss them.
"All four of them had their own leadership qualities. Hannah was the quiet leader, led by example, Mackenzie was our coach on the court - she would diagram plays for everybody, Olivia Pellarin was was just solid as a rock, never complaining, backing up players, and not only that, she was the sounding board, listening to everyone, and Angel has come so far as an athlete and I'm so happy to see her maturity and self assuredness."
For the seniors, they will hand over the reins to the next classes, knowing that they have made a spot in school history.
"It's hard because it's going to be the last time I'm competing at this level," Duffner said. "It's just hitting me now. We came a long way this season, knowing now we can compete will all these girls and knowing that all that practice, three hours a day, six days a week paid off. I've never gone this far and it's huge."