It was all about unfinished business for the Eastside Prep girls, who reached the first state basketball championship game in school history a year ago only to lose by four points.
That loss set the tone for this season and redemption was on the minds of the players as they progressed through an up-and-down season marked by injuries.
"To be honest, we've got some unfinished business to take care of," Eastside coach Donovan Blythe said before his team took the floor Thursday morning in the CIF Division V state finals at Sleep Train Arena in Sacramento.
A few hours later, that unfinished business was finished -- coming in the form of a 57-50 victory over Village Christian of Sun Valley in Southern California.
Despite battling illness, Eastside Prep sophomore Kayla Tahaafe scored 13 of her 15 points in the second half and had seven rebounds to help the Panthers erase a double-digit deficit win the first state title in school history.
"I'm a lot more happy, obviously," Tahaafe said, referring to last year's loss in the state finals. "I'm just really proud of all of us for what we did today."
Freshman Zion Gabriel added 16 points, including key 3-pointers, as the Panthers (20-11) finished the season on a nine-game winning streak. Eastside Prep was the No. 1 seed from Northern California while Village Christian (26-9) was No. 8 in SoCal.
The little school from East Palo Alto, with seven available players and no one standing over 5-foot-9, made a triumphant return to the state title game. Eastside Prep lost to La Jolla Country Day in last year's championship game, 40-36.
Down by 13 points during the first half, the youthful Panthers a team comprised of only freshmen and sophomores dominated play over the final 20 minutes while outscoring Village Christian, 45-25, over that span.
Crusaders junior 6-4 center Mercy Odima, who had 15 points and 19 rebounds, spent crucial time on the bench with foul trouble. She drew her fourth foul early in the final period and the Panthers took advantage.
Sophomore Alayah Bell, who had to visit a doctor on Tuesday after injuring her knee in the NorCal finals last Saturday, hit a short jumper with just under six minutes remaining to give Eastside Prep its first lead of the game. She finished with 16 points and seven rebounds, and was named her team's recipient as the Sportsmanship Award winner.
Gabriel put the Panthers ahead, 49-44, with 5:10 left but Village Christian cut the lead to 49-48 before Tahaafe took over down the stretch.
Sophomore Ra'Anaa Bey (four points and five boards) and freshman Mima Tameilau also made valuable contributions for Eastside Prep, which played without the injured Kiki Humphrey.
After shooting 30 percent and making just one of nine 3-point attempts in the first half, the Panthers shot 52 percent (15-of-29) in the second half while the Crusaders were 9 of 29 for 31 percent.
"I thought we did a much better job of keeping them off the boards," said Blythe. "These girls are in the gym at 5:45 a.m. every day. This is very deserving."
Bell hit a layup in the final 10 seconds of the third quarter to bring the Panthers within 42-41 heading into the final period. Freshman Kayla Mahan hit a 3-pointer moments before to help close the gap.
The Crusaders led, 25-12, with five minutes to go in the first half and looked ready to run away with it. Bell hit consecutive baskets and the Panthers scored seven straight to pull within six.
Village Christian led, 29-23, at halftime. The Crusaders held a 25-15 rebounding advantage at the half, including 12 on the offensive boards. Village Christian, however, was forced into 24 turnovers while Eastside Prep had 14.