Pinewood brings a 26-6 record after winning the NorCal title last weekend, 53-47, while St. Anthony comes in 26-9 after taking the SoCal crown, 48-41. Both teams are the No. 1 seeds from their respective brackets, and will be facing each other for the second time this season.
It was just a little more than three months ago that the same teams met on the final day of the Nike Tournament of Champions in Phoenix, Ariz. Pinewood let a 29-10 lead in the second quarter get away and still couldn't hold on with a three-point lead with just 35 seconds to play.
The Panthers wound up losing, 43-42, when St. Anthony scored with three seconds to play.
"They just killed us on the boards," said Scheppler, whose team was outrebounded 50-15 in that game on December 22. "We shot 7-of-35 from three-point range. It was a tough game for us."
Scheppler figures his team missed 15-20 three-point attempts in a row before Casey Cairo made one for a 42-41 lead. His team also was shorthanded following a series of ACL tears to three players — one of whom (senior Rachel Marty) was lost for the season.
Much has changed since then, however. The Pinewood team that St. Anthony saw then is not same Pinewood team the Saints will see in Bakersfield.
"We're confident we come into this game a different team that we were back then," Scheppler said. "It's going to be an interesting game Saturday morning."
The biggest change for Pinewood is having junior Jenna McLoughlin back from her torn ACL injury.
"Since Jenna's been playing," said Scheppler, "we've lost only once."
Pinewood is 15-1 since the 5-foot-10 McLoughlin returned and 20-2 since that loss to St. Anthony in December.
Scheppler said McLoughlin will need to be able to defend in the post and help neutralize some of St. Anthony's sizable frontline that goes 6-3, 6-0 and 5-11. Kendall Cooper, a 6-3 freshman, is her team's leading scorer at 11.1 ppg, but the Saints use a lot of players.
"It's pretty much the same deal as before," Scheppler explained. "We'll have to defend inside. They don't shoot the ball that well . . . Their best play is a rebound and a putback."
Scheppler said it's all a matter of preparing his players for the biggest game of the year.
"Confidence and belief in these games are a huge pyschological factor, almost as important as the physical side," Scheppler said. "It's all a matter of putting your girls in the right frame of mind."
Scheppler figures that St. Anthony will do its best to take away Pinewood's three-point shooting. The Panthers have attempted 848 this season and made 235. The Saints, conversely, have attempted only 339 and made just 74.
"Are they going to take away our 3s?" Scheppler said. "Probably. (But) State championship games are won and lost with easy baskets. You have to find ways to get layups."
And, said Scheppler, "if you don't have size, you have to press. We have enough in our arsenal to do that."
Along with McLoughlin, fellow juniors Hailie Eackles, Kelsey Morehead and Miranda Seto will be playing in their second straight state championship game along with seniors Lauren Taniguchi and Emily Liang.
Pinewood got a good tuneup for the state finals with its 53-47 victory over No. 2 Bradshaw Christian last weekend at Folsom High. It was Pinewood's experience against Bradshaw Christian's height. It was finesse against strength. Whoever came up with the best game plan and executed it would be the NorCal Division V champion.
"It was a battle," said Scheppler. "It was scratch and claw time."
Fortunately for Pinewood, it has been in similar situations over the years and that experienced carried the Panthers once again.
"We have the confidence of being there before," Scheppler said. "We know that we can find ways to win whether it's a running game or a grind it out game like today."
Pinewood advanced to the state championship game with its hard-fought win over the Pride (24-9). Eackles scored 24 points and had 10 rebounds, despite having to sit in the second quarter after picking up her third personal foul with 3 1/2 minutes to play. Seto added 14 points while Liang hit three big treys for nine points. McLoughlin held the Pride's leading scorer, Cheyenne Williams, to four points, 12 below her average. Williams did grab 18 rebounds.
The win over Bradshaw Christian was Pinewood's sixth straight. The Panthers will be making their fifth appearance in the state finals, having won 1999, 2005 and 2006 while placing second in 2009.
Pinewood had to earn its latest trip, however, as it got off to a slow start. The Panthers held a 27-26 halftime lead but trailed by five early in the third quarter.
"In the third quarter, they (Bradshaw Christian) got inside," Scheppler said. "We were giving up 4-5 inches at every spot but one."
Pinewood, as it has this season, just battled back. Liang hit a big three-pointer with three minutes to go in the fourth quarter to give the Panthers a 48-44 lead. Pinewood scored again, Bradshaw Christian answered and it was 50-46.
"It was a one-possession game pretty much the in the fourth quarter," Scheppler said.
Fortunately for Pinewood, once it got the lead in the final quarter it managed to hold on.
"We had a good game plan for them," said Scheppler, who also praised his defense for forcing 22 turnovers.
"Our constant fullcourt and halfcourt pressure forced a lot of turnovers," he said. "If we didn't do that, it would have been a lot tougher. Our defense was great today."
Bradshaw Christian, which was beaten soundly by Pinewood in the NorCal semifinals last season, had been pointing to this game since then. The Pride knew it had to shut down Pinewood's three-point game, and did so by limiting the Panthers to just 4-of-13 shooting from that distance.
"If you take away our threes, we're going to get layups," Scheppler said. That was Pinewood's saving grace on Saturday as it was able to get inside against a taller opponent that concentrated its defensive pressure on the perimeter.
"They were taking away our threes, but we got to the rim and got some layups," Scheppler said.
Pinewood hopes to do the same on Saturday, with a state championship on the line.
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