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By Loren Kopff
@LorenKopff on Twitter
Sometime prior to the Valley Christian High girls basketball game against Oxford Academy in the California Interscholastic Federation-Southern Section Divisional 4AA semifinals last Saturday night, former V.C. legendary head coach Eleanor Dykstra gave an inspirational speech to the team. Then the Lady Crusaders took to the court and fed off of those words in a big way.
A back and forth first half turned into a disastrous third quarter for the Lady Crusaders, who found themselves down by eight points. But senior Cheyenne McKinnie and her teammates fought back and pulled out a 40-36 victory. The Lady Crusaders, ranked third in the division, will now face Olympic League rival and top seeded Village Christian High tonight for the championship.
The win over the second ranked Patriots was especially special for V.C. head coach Dominic Freeman, who just in his third season, said he knew this day would come and is excited to see it right now. It’s also extra special for McKinnie, who transferred from Long Beach Jordan High the same time Freeman took over.
“This is what I’ve always wanted since my sophomore year when I came here,” McKinnie said. “I’ve always tried to work for this and now it’s finally here.”
“They’re all over the place,” Freeman said of his emotions. “This is so surreal. When I first got here, I knew about the tradition. But when you walk in, you go, ‘man, you have some big shoes to fill here’. They’ve had a lot of success here recently with our football and volleyball…all of our teams are doing great.”
With 1:01 remaining in the third quarter, Oxford Academy’s Mylee Madrazo capped off a 7-0 run with her second basket of the quarter to give the Patriots a 34-26 lead. Then the game shifted in V.C.’s way and junior Jai’lynn Parham got the party going with the stanza’s last basket. That was followed by an 8-0 run to begin the fourth quarter that was capped by a pair of free throws from freshman Kira Smith midway through the fourth quarter.
The only two points Oxford Academy would score in the fourth quarter came in the form of free throws from Austyn Masuno within a 21 second span. The latter free throw came with 3:04 remaining in the game. After that, the Lady Crusaders sealed the win with free throws from Parham and McKinnie.
“The will of the girls and the man upstairs,” Freeman said. “We’ve been through some adversity this year and my young team has not handled it so well. But it was really nice to see them show up in this type of magnitude in a game. I knew they were ready because all of them were texting me this morning about coming in and getting some extra work.”
The first quarter was primarily dominated by the 6’2” Masuno, who scored six points and grabbed three rebounds. But V.C. wasn’t about to be intimidated by her height as the quarter was tied four times and there were four lead changes with neither team leading by more than a basket.
The Lady Crusaders defense would continue to do an exceptional job on Masuno, who would be limited to four free throws the rest of the way but still managed to pull down 11 more rebounds.
“We just tried to take away her left,” McKinnie said. “We tried to force her right as much as possible because we know she loves to go left. We just tried to contain the shooters.”
“We wanted to force her right; get the ball out of her hand,” Freeman said. “We know she’s the focal point. We’re almost in the same boat with Cheyenne. But that’s their heartbeat and we wanted to slow it down. We did just enough to squeak by with a win.”
The second quarter would be nearly more of the same with three more lead changes and two more ties. A 7-0 V.C. run put the hosts up 20-16, which would tie for its largest lead of the game. After scoring two free throws in the opening quarter, McKinnie would come on strong and finish with a team-high 14 points. She also added eight rebounds and four steals.
“The first quarter I was off and I just knew I had to be strong for my team,” McKinnie said. “I knew I had to create some type of offense for them.”
Smith scored seven points and had four steals while sophomore Calla Anderson scored six points and pulled 10 rebounds off the glass. V.C.’s defense still hasn’t allowed more than 40 points in the playoffs.
“It’s a testament to these girls,” Freeman said. “We told them there are some things we can control and one is our ability to play defense and effort. The girls just did a great job. I’m just so proud of them right now. They battled.”
The Lady Crusaders improved to 21-8, their best record since the 2009-2010 season when they went 24-8 and advanced to the Division V-AA championship game. The last time the program won a CIF-SS championship was 2000. In all, V.C. has won 10 championships and has advanced to the finals nine other times.
The two foes in tonight’s championship game split their season series with Valley Christian winning on the road, 55-52, on Jan. 13 behind 24 points from McKinnie and a career-high 17 points from sophomore Ariel Gordon before Village Christian returned the favor two weeks later in a 44-32 triumph.
“It’s funny because we had a league meeting about two weeks ago and before we left, I told the coach, ‘I hope this isn’t the last time I see you this year’,” Freeman said. “We had a good chuckle about it and we felt confident we might meet up and now we are.”
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