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OLYMPIC LEAGUE BASKETBALL Valley Christian girls remain hot, pull away from Whittier Christian in fourth quarter

By Loren Kopff

@LorenKopff on Twitter

When the latest California Interscholastic Federation-Southern Section girls basketball polls came out this past Tuesday afternoon, Valley Christian High had moved into the top spot in Division IV-AA. Nearly five hours later, the Lady Crusaders showed why they were deserving of that top billing.

Backed by a stingy defense that yielded 13 second half points, V.C. went on a 13-6 run over the final 5:09 of the game and knocked off Whittier Christian High 41-32. The Lady Crusaders, who began the season ranked tied for ninth in the division, won their 10th straight game.

“We are extremely excited about coming away with a win,” said V.C. head coach Dominic Freeman. “We warned the girls that we were going to have a game like this. We missed some gimmies, some lay-ups; we didn’t shoot well from the field and we didn’t shoot very well from the free throw line. But we won an ugly game.”

Indeed, the shooting wasn’t on target early on. V.C. was 10 of 28 from the field in the first half but was able to maintain a three-point lead at the half. The first half had seven ties and four lead changes with neither team leading by more than four points. Sophomore Calla Anderson was a major force in the half, scoring 10 points and grabbing five rebounds in the first 16 minutes.

The second half began with Clairessa Watkins scoring a basket 35 seconds in to bring Whittier Christian to within a point. But the Lady Crusaders scored six straight points over the next four and a half minutes. While V.C. held a 28-24 advantage heading into the final quarter, its shooting was atrocious, connecting on two of 17 shots from the field.

“In our mindset, we had to stay focused,” Freeman said. “I know the girls are pretty high on our record and we told them our record doesn’t dictate we’re guaranteed that we’re going to win. But our offensive woes…we just had to play basketball and we had to do the little things right.”

The hosts would turn it around in the fourth quarter and after Watkins cut her team’s deficit to two points with 5:35 left to play, V.C.’s defense took over and limited the Heralds to six points the rest of the way. Sophomore Ariel Gordon had two offensive rebounds, a steal, a block and an assist in the final stanza while Anderson added three more rebounds to her team-high total of 10 while scoring five points in the fourth.  The 32 points V.C. gave up was the seventh fewest this season and the team has yielded fewer than 40 points 10 times this season.

“That’s what we hang our hats on,” Freeman said. “We told them that’s what is going to be consistent for us. That’s what is going to be there every night. Shooting may not be there every night, but our effort and our defense will.”

Anderson led everyone with 18 points, two away from her career-high that she had in the Olympic League opener against Heritage Christian High. Senior Cheyenne McKinnie added 11 points, six rebounds and five steals. She has scored in double figures in six straight games and 15 times this season.

“On this team, we’ve been having different girls step up for us, which has been something new for us,” Freeman said. “We have girls who are capable of stepping up. Calla Anderson is one of them who had a very solid game for us.”

Freeman said he is relishing in the opportunity that the Lady Crusaders (16-3 overall, 3-0 in league) are now the top team in the division. Already, V.C. has matched its win total of last season and hasn’t had this much success since the program advanced to the semifinals during the 2010-2011 season.

“I wouldn’t have like it if we were 3-16 and 0-3 in league,” Freeman said. “But it’s a testament to these kids who have continued to buy into our system, our philosophy. They’ve been working hard since day one and we remind them of that and we told them that they have a big target on their backs.”

A big target is exactly right as the league occupies the top three spots in the division with Village Christian High at No. 2 and Whittier Christian ranked third. For added measure, Heritage Christian is the top ranked team in Division V-AA.

“Right now, the best team that we’re going to be facing is Maranatha because that’s next on the schedule,” Freeman said. “We just have to continue to grind it out, value practice and value every moment.”

Following the game, the V.C. boys dug itself into a deep hole and despite a furious rally in the fourth quarter, the Crusaders ran out of time, falling to the Heralds 55-48. The loss snapped a four-game winning streak as V.C. fell to 12-8 overall and 2-1 in league.

A big reason why Whittier Christian was able to build a 31-17 halftime lead was the play of Nico Albertini, who torched the V.C. defense for 17 points before the break. But when he picked up his third foul almost three minutes into the third quarter and sat out the first part of the fourth quarter, the Crusaders took advantage.

“Nico was coming at us on the offensive glass and just taking it to us,” said V.C. head coach Bryan Branderhorst. “He was just bigger and tougher. We kind of shrunk under his physical play; we didn’t step up to him.”

With V.C. trailing 46-29 with 6:08 left in the game, senior Aaron Purnell hit the first of his two perimeter shots in the stanza, then junior Jacob Green sank a pair of free throws to make it a 12-point game.

After freshman Gorden Boykins hit two free throws with 4:18 remaining, the Crusaders were trailing by single digits for the first time since it was 26-17. Things became even more interesting when Boykins had one of eight V.C. steals and scored to make it a 49-45 contest with 2:09 left in the game. But the Crusaders would be unsuccessful on three straight three-point attempts.

“We’ve had a few nice comebacks this year already,” Branderhorst said. “That helps moving forward. You believe that you have a chance of doing this and you keep competing. They felt the pressure a little bit as we were coming and made some mistakes. We hit some big shots but it seemed like we ran out of gas a little bit.”

Purnell led the Crusaders with 15 points and six rebounds while Boykins added a dozen points and Green another nine points and six rebounds. Both V.C. teams will visit Maranatha High tonight before taking a week off in league action as they prepare for a home meeting with Village Christian on Jan. 27. In addition, the V.C. boys will host El Cajon-based Christian High on Saturday.

“Gorden does a great job for a freshman,” Branderhorst said. “He doesn’t blink. It seems like with him, the faster, the better. He’s really good in transition and taking the ball to the basket. We’ve seen Aaron step up before. He’s had big fourth quarters for us pretty regularly. So he was able to do that again tonight.”

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