By Paul Meadors | Sports Editor
LONG BEACH – With six seconds remaining and up nine points in the SoCal Open Division finals, Sarah Bates let out a smile and told Danae Marquez, “We did it.”
All that left was the formality and when the clock hit zeros the celebration began as the Clovis West girls advanced to the state championship game in a grind-it-out game – a thrilling 53-44 win over Long Beach Poly at the Pyramid at Long Beach State that saw USA Today’s No. 4 team outscore the Jackrabbits 31-22 in the second half with guts, sweat and clutch free throws.
“As of right now it is pretty unreal,” said Marquez smiling after the game at a press conference. “It hasn’t quite settled in yet, it’s unbelievable.”
The Golden Eagles (32-2) will be making their first appearance in the state championship game at Golden 1 Center in Sacramento on March 25 against Archbishop Mitty (28-2), the No. 1 team in the state in Cal-Hi Sports rankings. Clovis West is No. 2, and suffered one of its two losses to Mitty 70-69 in the championship game at the Iolani Classic in Hawaii in December.
Like all their high level games this year (they have played eight of the top 15 teams in the country this season), this one wasn’t easy and in a game that saw Clovis West make only 11 of 35 field goals due to a tough and swarming Poly defense, the Golden Eagles used a decided 28-35 free throw advantage to pull away late, sending them to their first state title game in school history. They had previously been 0-4 in SoCal final games.
Poly (27-4) has been the class of SoCal, if not the state, in regards to girls basketball, winning eight Southern Section titles since 2006 including the State Open Division title in 2014. Poly beat Clovis West to end their season in the state playoffs by the ironic score of 53-44.
“We have tremendous respect for them. Coach Buggs does an outstanding job and has some very talented basketball kids,” said Campbell about the longtime Poly coach, whose team beat the Jackrabbits 70-67 in OT in Hawaii, a day before they lost to Mitty in Hawaii. “We anticipated it to be a one to ten points game either way.”
And the game was a seesaw battle from the tip and after Bre’yanna Sanders scored the first bucket of the game after an offensive rebound and battled to a 22-22 halftime. Clovis West took the lead for good with 2:28 left in the third quarter on a three-point shot from Sarah Bates to make the score 28-26 from an assist from sophomore starter Maddie Campbell.
The lead increased to seven in the fourth quarter with 1:34 left after two Bates free throws. In fact, they would not make a field goal after Campbell’s layup with 4:53 left, sinking 9-10 free throws the rest of the way.
The usually stout shooting team found it tough sledding from the three-point arc but throughout the season this team has proved it can win games in a variety of styles. And to win the big-time games, there’s no substitute for senior leadership and Clovis West’s got ‘em in seniors Marquez (six points, five rebounds, three steals), Bates (10 points), Megan Anderson (10 points, five rebounds), Bre’yanna Sanders (12 rebounds) and Tess Amundsen (nine points).
And note that on the road to the Open Championship game, Clovis West has had to go through three McDonald’s All-Americans in three consecutive games. First was Troy’s Kianna Smith (68-61 win), then Bishop’s Destiny Littleton (73-41 win) and in the Poly win they held 6-foot-3 Ayanna Clark to a meager five points and three rebounds, denying the ball at all times.
This much is true; the Clovis West girls are playing for the Open State Championship, in the toughest division in the state, in the most talented state in the country.
“I’m so happy for the kids and all they’ve invested into it,” said Campbell. “To be a public school from Fresno playing in the Open Division State Championship game is surreal. What our program has accomplished is nothing short of remarkable.”