Like a Champ: Clovis West girls advance to SoCal regional finals on Pulliam’s 3-pointer

Clovis West celebrates after the buzzer sounds in its remarkable 46-45 win over Harvard-Westlake. The Golden Eagles are the defending CIF State Open champions and 32-3 this season. (Contributed by Rawsportz Media)

The message in the huddle from Clovis West assistant coach Duane Steward to Champney Pulliam was clear, concise, encouraging and hopeful: “You’ve got a game-winner in you tonight.”

Those prophetic words early in the game rang loud and true at the perfect time as Pulliam nailed a corner 3-pointer with 1.8 seconds remaining for a rousing and remarkable 46-45 Clovis West comeback win over a stunned Harvard-Westlake squad, propelling the Golden Eagles to a return to the CIF SoCal Open Division regional finals game where they’ll face No. 1 Windward at Long Beach State on March 17.

“Crazy, unbelievable,” Clovis West coach Craig Campbell said. “We rolled the dice and went for the win.”

And why not? In a game where the defending CIF State Open champs did not make a field goal in the first quarter, contributing to a 13-4 deficit and were down by as many as eight points with 2:06 left in the third quarter, the girls in gold and maroon went for broke, and it paid off big time.

Champney Pulliam shoots the game-winning 3-pointer with 1.8 seconds remaining to lift No. 2 Clovis West into the CIF Open SoCal championship game with a 46-45 come from behind victory over No. 3 Harvard-Westlake. (Contributed by Rawsportz Media)

The game-winning play after a Clovis West timeout with 17 seconds was executed to perfection: an Aari Sanders screen for Pulliam who faded to the corner, then a pass from Nikki Tom and then kaboom! – the shot heard around the state.

“At first I didn’t know how much time was left and everyone was screaming,” Pulliam said. “So I was running down to play defense and then said to myself, ‘Wow, we just won.’”

And you can throw out luck, this shooter has skills; Pulliam estimates she’s shot thousands upon thousands of corner 3-pointers in practice.

“I was right behind her when she released it and said ‘Oh my God, it’s in,’” Campbell said. “We count on her, we believe in her. With her and Maddie [Campbell], we feel like every shot is going in.”

After Harvard-Westlake (26-6) called a timeout, a desperation shot from half court by senior Jayla Ruffus-Milner went long, sending Clovis West (32-3) and a crazed crowd of around 1,000 into a frenzy.

Clovis West certainly had to claw and scratch its way back against a talented Harvard-Westlake team with state championship aspirations, led by 6-foot-1 freshman Kiki Iriafren and her 17 points and 10 rebounds per game.

Clovis West freshman Nikki Tom drives to the basket against Harvard-Westlake. Tom scored 14 points in the game and was instrumental in the comeback win. (Contributed by Rawsportz Media)

However, a rejuvenated Maddie Campbell and freshman Tom (14 points) helped the Golden Eagles claw and scratch their way back from the brink of defeat.

Campbell, a virtual lock for league MVP and the team’s leading scorer, was held without a field goal and only two points in the first half, mainly due to the defense of Pepperdine-bound Jayda Ruffus-Milner, twin sister of Jayla.

Unfortunately for Harvard-Westlake, Jayda Ruffus-Milner would go down with what looked like a serious knee injury in the second quarter.

Campbell would then find her stroke when Clovis West needed her most, hitting a 3 and a five-foot bank shot in the key, narrowing the gap to 43-42 with 4:26 remaining.

“My dad [Coach Craig Campbell] always tells the shooters on our team that we need to have a short memory span,” Maddie Campbell said. “Which means you alway have to be thinking the next shot will go in, that was my mindset.”

Campbell, however, would foul out with 1:58 left in the game after scoring 13 points, leaving the heroics for Pulliam, both juniors and best friends since junior high at Kastner Intermediate.

“I would never had thought this would happen at the beginning of the season,” said Pulliam, who scored six points. “This is just surreal.”

The CIF Open SoCal Regional Finals will be held at Long Beach State on March 17 at 4 p.m. against No. 1 Windward of Los Angeles. The winner will advance to the March 24 state championship game at Golden 1 Center in Sacramento.