Fourth-seeded Salesian of Richmond came out like a freight train on both offense and defense to post its third straight CIF Northern Regional championship with a 78-64 victory over Miramonte of Orinda.
This title was the first in the Open Division with the previous two coming in Division IV NorCal championship games.
With the victory, Salesian (30-6) will meet Long Beach Poly next Saturday back in Sacramento in the CIF Open Division state championship.
The Pride sprinted out to a 24-5 lead after one quarter, a 36-13 lead midway through the second quarter, a 42-24 lead at halftime, and then they held off a furious comeback by Miramonte to post a comfortable victory.
When Miramonte closed to 58-53 on the opening basket of the fourth quarter, and with both of Salesian’s top players, Louisville-bound Mariya Moore and Colorado-committed 6-foot-4 post Zoe Correal, saddled with four fouls, it was beginning to look like Miramonte might make a miracle comeback.
However, Salesian head coach Steve Pezzola, who brought his team into Sleep Train Arena ready to rumble, managed the foul situation masterfully.
“I was thinking what combination can we put in and still maintain the pressure,” Pezzola said. “We tried to extend it a bit but we couldn’t take the pressure off. At that stage, we had to play like we wanted to win not like we didn’t want to lose.”
Moore only had seven points, but she dished out nine assists and pulled down seven rebounds with six steals.
“The way they came back it was definitely a relief that we were able to stick it out and fight through,” Moore said. “I just wish I hadn’t committed so many fouls so I could have contributed even more.”
USA U16 Gold Medal team member Sabrina Ionescu led Miramonte (30-2) with a game-high 23 points and seven rebounds, but the harassing defense of Salesian forced her into seven turnovers with four coming in the first half.
Despite not scoring much, Moore still had a hand in 25 points, while Ionescu only had the 23 points to account for since she had no assists.
Three other girls stepped up huge for Salesian.
The backcourt duo of junior Kian McNair (team high 18 points, six rebounds, three steals) and sophomore Minyon Moore (13 points and four assists), the little sister of Mariya, picked up the slack caused by the top stars being in foul trouble. Both have shown marked improvement since the beginning of the season, and will need to play well if Salesian is to have a chance in the Open Division state championship against a loaded Poly squad.
“Both Kian and Minyon have improved a great amount,” Pezzola remarked. “But tonight was really a whole team effort. Deja came up big too.”
Deja would be Deja Stallworth, the younger sister of former Pinole Valley and current Kentucky star DeNesha Stallworth.
Stallworth, who transferred to Gardena Serra but never attended the school or played due to a paperwork error, returned to Salesian and backed up Correal this season. She finished with 12 points, but 10 of them came in the first quarter when Salesian built its big lead.
“Maybe we were a little nervous but for whatever reason we came out sluggish,” Miramonte head coach Kelly Sopak said. “Beating Carondelet in what was the biggest game in our area took a lot out of us.”
Both Miramonte defeats this season came at the hands of Salesian and its strong defense. This time, the Lady Mats scored 64 points but the last time they had less in a 74-56 loss.
Coming into the game, Miramonte was averaging more than 92 points per game in its five playoff games and nearly 80 points per game on the season.
“I just don’t think we were quite ready,” said senior Megan Reid, a two-sport star that will probably play soccer in college. “We’re a young team that never quits and I’m proud of my teammates.”
Salesian will have a formidable task in Poly and its huge front line and bevy of D1 talent.
“We don’t know that much about Poly except they have a lot of girls going D1,” Pezzola told Cal-Hi Sports. “We have film on them so we’ll start breaking it down tomorrow morning, and maybe the afternoon and evening too.”