What Pinewood School achieved this season – making it to the state Open Division girls basketball championship game for the second straight year – is unprecedented.
While the Panthers will surely look back at this feat with pride one day, it seemed the furthest thing from their minds as they faced the media a few minutes after Saturday’s 69-51 loss to Sierra Canyon in the state final at Sacramento’s Golden 1 Center.
Tears were shed, heads were down and words were few.
The scene was similar to a year ago when Pinewood fell to Windward in the title game. Those Panthers, however, could at least take comfort in knowing they had a good shot at redemption with all but one starter returning this year. Saturday’s game capped the high school careers of starters Klara Astrom, Hannah Jump and Kaitlyn Leung, along with reserves Isabelle Chung and Trinity Copeland.
“Walking away from the program in your last game with a loss is very bitter,” Pinewood coach Doc Scheppler said, “but they are walking away as great people and great athletes.”
Sierra Canyon was able to slow them down Saturday night with a game plan that worked from the get-go. Coach Alicia Komaki stressed stopping the Panthers’ top scorers – Jump (averaging 17.1 points per game) and Astrom (16.1) – from getting shots, daring their teammates to beat her Trailblazers.
Jump, one of the top 3-point shooters in the nation, was held to seven points on just five shots. Astrom, who scored a game-high 27 points in the Panthers’ NorCal final win over Salesian earlier in the week, had eight points on 10 field-goal attempts.
“They did a great job staying home on our shooters and forcing us to look to score in some other avenues,” said Scheppler, who has coached Pinewood to 10 state finals. “But I don’t think it was so much scoring that was a major problem today – it was pretty much getting stops against them.”
Only Mitty scored more points against Pinewood (27-4 overall) this season than Sierra Canyon (33-1); the Panthers followed that 72-51 loss in the Central Coast Section final with three double-digit wins to reach the state title game.
The Trailblazers posed more problems for Pinewood than its NorCal opponents. That’s not only because of Komaki – who has now guided them to four state titles, the first against Pinewood in 2013 – but also due to their size, skill and athleticism. Three Sierra Canyon players scored at least 15 points Saturday, led by guard Ashley Chevalier’s game-high 20.
“Her skill set is at a high level,” Scheppler said of the junior, who also had seven assists. “She can create off a dribble really well and she makes the others a lot better with her penetration – and they hit some opens 3s as a result.”
Vanessa De Jesus drained three consecutive 3s in the first quarter, helping Sierra Canyon take a 17-13 lead into the second.
Jump cut the Panthers’ deficit to four on a drive, and Astrom answered Chevalier’s 3 with one of her own midway through the quarter to again make it a four-point game.
Astrom picked up her third foul with 2:32 remaining in the half, and Amanda Olinger made both free throws to push the Trailblazers’ advantage to 31-22.
“It was a stupid thing to do. … I just meant to scare her – I didn’t mean to get close to her,” said Astrom, who sat out the remainder of the half and fouled out with 34 seconds left in the game, “but it just happened, and I put my team in a bad position.”
Scheppler downplayed that, noting that Pinewood was still very much in the game at halftime. Annika Decker’s 3 with 1:48 left in the second sliced the deficit to six, and the Panthers held Sierra Canyon scoreless the rest of the half.
“We didn’t play a great half – we played a decent half – and if we turned it on, I thought we had a great shot to win the game,” the coach said. “They outplayed us for four minutes of that third quarter.”
The Trailblazers opened the third with a 12-0 run ignited by Chevalier’s pull-up jumper. Alexis Mark followed with a pair of buckets in the paint, and Angela Bacoulis hit back-to-back 3s to make it 43-25 with 4:02 left in the quarter.
Pinewood wasn’t ready to give up. The Panthers snapped a nearly six-minute scoreless streak with a low-post basket from Copeland, the catalyst for a 15-7 run to close the quarter.
Jump buried her first and only 3-point shot of the night during the outburst, while Leung and Courtni Thompson each scored five points. Thompson’s buzzer-beating layup made it 50-40.
The deficit dwindled to eight when Decker cut to the hoop for a layin, assisted by Astrom, just 10 seconds into the fourth.
Chevalier responded with two straight field goals, the first a layup off a steal, to push the Trailblazers’ lead to 54-42 with 6:48 to go. Decker quickly countered with a 3, but Pinewood wouldn’t score again until she hit another trey with 1:33 left. By then Sierra Canyon already had the game in hand at 65-48.
Sophomore Decker totaled a team- and career-high 17 points.
“I couldn’t be more proud of her,” Scheppler said of his point guard.
While the season didn’t end as the Panthers hoped, Jump won’t soon forget the bonds they made.
“I wouldn’t trade … (this) group of girls for anything,” the Stanford-bound forward said. “It’s going to be hard not going to practice next week and seeing all of them.”