By Paul Meadors, Sports Editor
They scrapped, clawed and fought, finding themselves three minutes and 40 seconds away from taking another step towards that elusive state championship.
But, a virtual stomach-punching final minutes of a wildly passionate and entertaining game would derail the hope of Clovis West as Long Beach Poly, arriving with great pedigree, proved too much in a 53-44 win in the semi-finals of the Southern California Regional Open Division in front of a raucous home crowd 2,500 strong on March 15.
Down 10-18 after the first quarter and 21-31 at halftime, junior point guard Danae Marquez’s baseline 8-foot floater gave the Golden Eagles a 43-42 lead in the fourth quarter with the clock reading 3:40. Unfortunately after that it was all Long Beach Poly as the Jackrabbits outscored Clovis West 11-1 the rest of the way.
A gut-wrenching ending indeed.
And a game filled with a bunch of what-ifs. The usually sharp-shooting Clovis West squad was ice cold from the free throw line (12-25 for the game) and only connected on four three-pointers.
Clovis West (30-4) needed to shoot well, defend like crazy and not play hesitant. Put check marks on only one of the three.
“We played scared the first half,” said head coach Craig Campbell. “We were way too tight and just couldn’t settle in. We played better in the second half but a lot of bounces seemed to go their way and we couldn’t get things to fall. They were too good of a team.”
High praise for a team that actually came in seeded as the Southern Section’s No. 3 seeded team. Clovis West was seeded No. 2 with home court advantage.
The Golden Eagles were ranked as high as No. 12 in the nation by USA Today and No. 6 in the state by Cal-Hi Sports and found themselves in unfamiliar territory being behind by halftime.
Consider this: their average win margin was 44.5 points in the TRAC.
But, led by the spirited play of Bre’yanna Sanders and Bates and Marquez (all juniors, by the way), Clovis West methodically closed the gap in the third quarter.
And it was Sanders igniting the crowd with a buzzer-beating offensive rebound and bucket to make it 37-40. Nevertheless, after expending so much energy closing the gap and taking the lead the Golden Eagles couldn’t sustain the intensity to finish the game.
The Golden Eagles came into the game scorching hot with a 17 game winning streak, including a first round 82-55 drubbing of Sierra Canyon of Chatsworth. But the Jackrabbits pressure defense was a game changer.
And one can be certain about this high-level basketball game: both coaches scouted their opponents like mad-men.
In fact, Long Beach Poly’s head coach Carl Buggs called Clovis West’s three sharpshooters by first name “Sarah, Danae and Megan” when discussing keys to winning the game, a sure sign the long-time coach studied film into the wee hours of the night.
We know them as Sarah Bates, Danae Marquez and Megan Anderson. He also knew Clovis West would come out like gangbusters after the 21-31 halftime deficit.
“We expected it to be a battle,” said Buggs, who has guided Long Beach Poly (27-4) to six state titles, including an Open Division title in 2014. “Because of the long drive down we told our girls that we were starting the game down 10 [points]. So, starting the second half it was an even game.”
Marquez, the steady point guard who was held to five points lamented the heart-breaking defeat with grace and maturity: “I’m sad that it’s over but we left our hearts out on the courts. That’s all we can do.”
Bates led Clovis West in scoring with 11. Anderson and senior Aysha Kirkland chipped in with nine points each.
After the game Campbell chose to focus on the positive parts of the season, which included a fourth consecutive D-1 Central Section title.
“With the great year that we had it’s not about what we didn’t do but it’s about the year we had,” said Campbell, a few minutes after the loss. “The coaches and I are proud of them.”