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Norwalk’s Liera a double threat against Dos Pueblos in overtime thriller

English: State Seal of the California Intersch...

English: State Seal of the California Interscholastic Federation (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

CIF-SOUTHERN SECTION GIRLS BASKETBALL PLAYOFFS

By Loren Kopff

There are basketball players who dream of scoring the game-winning basket, especially in a playoff game. Then there is Norwalk High senior center/forward Briana Liera, who never dreamed of being put in that situation.

Liera, a transfer from Santa Fe who had to sit out the first 14 games of the season due to the California Interscholastic Federation-Southern Section transfer rules, had a hand in tying the game, then scored the game-winner with 21 seconds left in overtime as the host Lady Lancers got by Dos Pueblos 56-54 last Saturday night in a Division II-A first round game.

“Honestly, I wasn’t expecting that much of a good game from me,” Liera said. “But it was a big impact when we got the win. I felt super excited, especially coming off the bench.”

After squandering an eight-point lead early in the fourth quarter, Norwalk was trailing the Chargers 47-44 with 1:08 left in regulation. But senior guard Cristina Batarse scored with 29 seconds remaining. After Norwalk head coach Richard Drake called a pair of time outs within the final 18 seconds, Liera fed an inbounds pass to senior center Maiya Griffin-McNair who was fouled with five seconds left and made one of two free throws.

“She was one of the top players from Santa Fe and we’re happy to have her,” Drake said. “Her pass to Maiya in the middle of the court so we could open up that one play late in the game was a crucial play for us too.”

“When she was shooting those free throws, I went up to her and told her to take a deep breath and, ‘you got this’,” Liera said.

The Lady Lancers, co-Suburban League champions who notched their 20th win at the time, led the entire first half until Hallie Magee tied the game with a second before halftime. Norwalk led by as many as eight points (17-9) and was getting great play from Griffin-McNair and senior forward Elizabeth Hernandez, who each scored seven points in the half. Batarse also had a solid first half with six rebounds and three steals.

Almost a minute into the second half, Dos Pueblos took its first lead of the contest when Helen Nam scored off her own steal, then held its biggest lead of the game almost 30 seconds later following a Jennifer Wetzel basket. But Norwalk regained the lead with 1:33 left in the third quarter on a three-pointer from sophomore guard Jackie Aldana and proceeded to build an eight-point lead with 5:54 left in regulation after Liera hit a pair of free throws.

Norwalk was still leading 42-36 at the 4:40 mark but was held scoreless for the next three minutes while the at-large representatives from the Channel League stormed back and regained the lead on Wetzel’s three-pointer with 2:54 remaining in regulation.

“Their press, even though we worked on it, it was still a match press,” Drake said. “It wasn’t a zone press and they exposed some poor passing and poor ball handling. We didn’t duplicate that in practice; it’s very difficult to do that.”

In overtime, the Lady Lancers scored the first six points courtesy of Liera and Griffin-McNair. But Dos Pueblos responded with five straight points and tied the game at 54-54 on Emi Parker’s bucket with 41 seconds left. After Wetzel missed two free throws with 30 seconds left, Drake called a timeout to set up a play, which called for senior guard Brenda Venegas to get the ball to Liera, who scored the game winner and was also fouled in the process. The Chargers were unable to get an open shot after the missed free throw. Norwalk was able to escape with the win partly because Dos Pueblos hit just four free throws on 24 attempts in the fourth quarter and overtime while Norwalk was five of 12 during the same time, with Liera going three for four.

“Some kids that normally aren’t expected to step up…they stepped up tonight,” Drake said. “We had some good bench play, probably our best play of the year. It had to be.”

Griffin-McNair led Norwalk with 16 points and pulled down 10 rebounds while collecting seven steals. Liera scored all 11 of her points, which is a career-high in the fourth quarter and overtime. Hernandez had nine points and Batarse pitched in with eight points while grabbing 13 boards.

“It’s been nice,” Liera said. “It was good playing at Santa Fe but coming here, it was depressing sitting out for a while. But I had fun playing and it showed tonight.”

This was just the second playoff victory in Drake’s six seasons at Norwalk, both coming at home and in consecutive seasons. Drake, who announced his retirement a few weeks ago, coached his last game this past Wednesday night in a 56-26 loss to Redondo. Norwalk ends the season at 20-9, its second straight 20-victory campaign. Drake leaves with an overall record of 267-187 over 19 seasons with Norwalk and John Glenn.

“I told the kids I was disappointed about giving up those leads, however, I’m extremely proud of the way they hung in there at the end,” Drake said. “I’m very proud that they played that way in front of their fans. It showed a lot of pride in us and it showed how hard these kids have worked all year.”

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