Decker CCS final celebration

The Pinewood girls basketball team celebrates Annika Decker, center, who made the game-winning shot in Friday’s CCS Open Division final.

When the game is on the line, some basketball players shy away from the moment and others embrace it – even if they haven’t made a shot all day. Pinewood School’s Annika Decker showed Friday that she belongs in the latter category.

The senior point guard’s first and only basket of the Central Coast Section Open Division girls final proved to be the game’s biggest, propelling the second-seeded Panthers to a 50-48 win at top-seeded Mitty. With her team trailing by one, Decker drove to the hoop and found just enough daylight between two taller defenders to lay it in while getting fouled with 13 seconds to play.

“I was able to get through the little gap and finish right there,” she said. “I can’t believe I didn’t knock down a single shot and then for that one to fall is just amazing.”

Coach Doc Scheppler said it wasn’t a set play, but his four-year varsity player certainly had the greenlight to shoot.

“She’s one of our matchup advantages from the standpoint of I don’t think they have a person on their team that can keep her in front of (them),” he said.

That endorsement from the coaching staff helped Decker – 0-for-6 from the field before delivering the shot that guaranteed Pinewood a perfect season (17-0) – keep her confidence in crunch time.

“I didn’t really have doubt in myself because my coaches just believed in me,” she said, “and I just stayed aggressive, knowing that next one’s in.”

Then came the free throw, which Decker calmly sank to put Pinewood up two.

“Doc told me to practice my free throws, because they’re going to come up at the end,” she said. “So, I was ready.”

Rematch resilience

The senior-laden Panthers as a whole seemed better prepared and more self-assured than when they last encountered their nemesis. The Monarchs thumped them by 32 points in 2020 Open final, marking the fifth-straight year that Mitty claimed the crown at Pinewood’s expense.

“I think the girls were more relaxed and confident because they looked at the video of when we played them last year,” Scheppler said, “and several of them mentioned before the game, ‘We are so much better than we were last year.’”

Yet even after Decker’s heroics, the title wasn’t secured. The Monarchs (13-2) still had a chance, several actually, to send the game into overtime. After a timeout with 7.4 seconds to go, they managed to get off two shots in the paint, and then a jump-ball call right before the buzzer kept hope alive. The possession arrow favored Mitty, and the officials – despite Scheppler’s objections – put 1.5 seconds back on the clock.

“It was a little frustrating,” Decker said. “But we knew that we just had to come out, play solid defense just for another second and then it was ours.”

Mitty’s 6-foot sophomore post player, Maya Hernandez, received the inbound pass and fired up a shot from the middle of the key that missed the mark. Game over.

The Monarchs missed nine of their 10 shots in the fourth, mustering only five points after putting up 18 in the third.

The Panthers trailed by as many as 12 points in the third, but rallied in the final two minutes. Incited by senior Chance Bucher’s corner 3, Pinewood ended the quarter on a 6-2 run and opened the fourth by scoring seven straight points. Bucher also made a midrange jumper during that stretch, Maia Garcia scored five points (two low-post baskets and a free throw) and then Courtni Thompson buried a trey to close the gap to 44-42 with 6:36 to play.

The Panthers weren’t going away this time.

“I have to give all the credit to my girls,” said Scheppler of his team’s resilience, “They just stayed positive.”

Mitty built the lead back to five before Thompson hit another 3. After back-to-back turnovers by the Monarchs, Pinewood tied the game on a putback by Garcia with 4:15 left. The senior center totaled a game-high 13 points.

The score remained tied until Mitty’s Sydney Bourland split free throws with 35.8 seconds remaining (the Monarchs shot a mere 2-of-10 from the stripe). Decker’s drive then gave the Panthers their first lead of the contest.

Pinewood trailed 25-23 at halftime, with Elle Ladine contributing nine points off the bench to help keep it close. The junior totaled 11 points, as did senior Thompson. Una Jovanovic, another senior, produced seven points and Bucher finished with five.