Eastside College Prep junior Kayla Tahaafe played the role of leading lady to perfection Saturday night and she had a heck of a supporting cast.
Tahaafe, a 5-7 point guard, scored 29 points and grabbed 13 rebounds in leading Eastside past Priory, 66-58, and to Eastside's third consecutive trip to the girls' Division V state championship game.
Eastside (22-8) meets Rolling Hills Prep (32-3) at 10 a.m. Friday at the Golden 1 Center in Sacramento, the newly-opened downtown arena of the Sacramento Kings.
Eastside Prep needed everybody to get past Priory, which it had beaten twice by double-digits during the regular season.
Priory's Samantha McCabe, the only senior on the court, made a terrific inside move to grab an offensive rebound and laid it back in to bring Priory within 54-52 with 2:26 remaining to play in the game.
It was still anybody's ballgame.
"Even though we beat them twice, we knew they would bring a lot of energy," Tahaafe said. "They earned our respect."
Priory had its own star in 5-8 guard Tatiana Reese, who scored 25 points and continually looked to put her team into the best position. She hooked up with 6-4 sophomore Ila Lane, a rising star, on a handful of beautiful lob passes.
Lane finished with 13 points and 16 rebounds and helped Priory take a 19-14 lead in the first quarter. Eastside led, 32-31, at halftime and 48-44 entering the final period.
"This whole season has been about getting back to state," Tahaafe said. "We had the mentality that we could not let them beat us in any aspect."
That Priory (21-10) was even in the NorCal regional final is remarkable in itself. There was no girls' basketball team at the school until the current juniors and McCabe, who transferred into Priory as a sophomore, stepped on campus.
"It's pretty amazing what we've gone through," said McCabe, who will be attending Santa Clara University in the fall. "I am so proud of this team, and the school, for going from nowhere to playing for the NorCal championship."
McCabe credited a supportive athletic department and the coaching staff led by Franklin "Buck" Matthews for the lightning-quick improvement of the program.
"The coaches, my teammates, they are so amazing and so supportive and worked so hard," McCabe said. "I will definitely be back next year to root this team on. This will always be my team."
Matthews, who graduated from Eastside Prep in 2003, has a deep connection with the school. He played for Chris Bischof and served as an assistant for him for a year before moving over to the girls' program under Donovan Blythe.
"It all started with Chris," Matthews said. "This place is still my home away from home."
Now he's got his own program to build and he's heading for success.
"We know we're building something," he said. "This team felt they could win this game. It's more experience. We'll be back."
Blythe, who celebrated his birthday Saturday, thinks Matthews is heading in the right direction.
"I have the most respect for Buck and for Priory," Blythe said. "They had a great year."
Eastside hopes to have its own great finish. The team has shared a lot already this year and it's been special for Blythe, whose wife had a tumor removed during the season and will be out of action for at least six months.
The team has been there for him and his family. They shared a dinner Friday night at the Blythe household.
"It's been unbelievable," Blythe said. "This team, this game, is the best present I could hope for. These girls have been so great. It's a special feeling."
Tahaafe makes sure Blythe's game plan gets carried out. It's almost eerie the way she seems to anticipate what he wants.
"We're close," Tafaahe said. "We have a connection. I knew what he wanted us to do about game management in the fourth quarter. We both knew at the same time."
Blythe thinks 5-2 guard Kayla Mahan can start for a lot of teams. She's valuable coming off the bench though.
"She's steady," Blythe said. "We need a player off the bench who can score baskets right away. That's her job. Her defense is stellar and she's a tough kid."
Priory closed the gap to 48-44 by the end of the third quarter and made sure Eastside would not get a last-second shot.
Enter Mahan, who hit a 3-pointer to open the final period. Ra'Anaa Bey followed with another and Eastside had its biggest lead at 54-44.
Priory responded with a nice run, getting a basket from Gabby Ruiz and another from Reese. And then McCabe made her move.
Mahan hit a 3-pointer with 2:03 remaining to play and then made a critical steal that led to a pair of Tahaafe free throws. Tahaafe made seven consecutive free throws down the stretch.
Reese hit another 3-pointer to bring Priory within 59-55 in the final minute of play but Mahan's five 3-pointers, Bey's trio and Zion Gabriel's pair were too much to overcome.
Lala Niu scored 10 points for Priory. Mina Tameilau, DeDe Franklin and Kiki Humphrey each hit key baskets for Eastside, which is planning its trip to Sacramento.