In perhaps the best CIF Open Division state finals played since the format began in 2013, Etiwanda edges Archbishop Mitty of San Jose on a put-back at the buzzer to win its first-ever state crown. The Monarchs just came up one play short in what would have been regarded as an upset. Central of Fresno also gets a record-breaking performance from its star player in D2 championship win while Bret Harte of Angels Camp also earned its first-ever state title in D5.
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Note: Editor and publisher Mark Tennis did the writeup for Bret Harte vs Marina of Huntington Beach.
There should be little argument about one thing from those that have witnessed or covered state championship games over the years since the California Interscholastic Federation established them for girls basketball for the 1981 season – and that would be the Open Division state championship title game match-up played Saturday night between Southern Regional Open champion Etiwanda and Northern Regional champion Archbishop Mitty covered all the bases when it came to superlatives.
In what was one of if not the greatest, most exciting, exhilarating, thrilling and absolutely suspenseful girls basketball state championship games in the Open Division era, or even when divisions were enrollment based, reigning Cal-Hi Sports State Sophomore of the Year Kennedy Smith shined brightest on the biggest stage in a game at the Golden 1 Center in Sacramento on Saturday night where it seemed like all the top stars brought their best game.
Smith, a 6-foot-1 junior who pretty much can play any position on the floor, had a play designed for her after Etiwanda got possession on a held ball with 19.4 seconds remaining and the score tied 67-67.
On the play, Smith took a mid-range shot with just seconds left, and after it rolled around the rim twice and dropped out, junior reserve Jada Sanders got the rebound and scored as time expired, and in the blink of an eye Etiwanda was the 2023 CIF Open Division state champion.
“I was in position under the basket and watched the ball roll around,” Sanders said. “And when it rolled off I grabbed the rebound and put it back up and in.”
With the victory Etiwanda (32-3) won its first-ever state championship in its first title game appearance. It was also the first Open Division title for a team from the Inland Empire portion of the CIF Southern Section, and first girls state championship of any kind from the Inland Empire since Cajon of San Bernardino won the 2016 Division II state championship.
For her part, Smith was a terror on both ends of the court and was pretty much unstoppable when she decided to impose her will. Smith finished with a huge double-double and game highs of 30 points and 13 rebounds, and a game-high six steals. Plus, she was 9-of-9 from the free-throw line, and the one three-pointer she made was with her foot on the NBA three-point arc.
“I came in here and did what I had to do and got it done,” said Smith, who came to the CIF state finals last year to watch her brother, R.J., star in a win by the Damien of La Verne boys in D1. “To be on this stage and present what I have to show is really big for me.”
“Smith was the key,” remarked Mitty head coach Sue Phillips. “She’s relentless and really showed up big time tonight.”
Smith certainly was the key, but it was a total team effort.
Flashy sophomore guard Aliyahna “Puff” Morris showed why she was chosen as the 2022 State Freshman of the Year with her ball handling skills, ability to get to the basket or dish the ball, and play solid defense. The 5-foot-5 Morris finished with 14 points, six rebounds and four assists, and in a game where two of her teammates and one Mitty player fouled out, Morris, who has played with foul trouble in the past this season, only committed one foul.
“Tonight’s game. Wow,” said Etiwanda head coach Stan Delus to kick off the winners post game press conference. “Just the resiliency of our girls to fight, but that’s been them all year.
“It was unbelievable,” continued Delus. “Just two teams that battled for all 32 minutes, and it was whoever wanted it at the end, and we prevailed.”
Etiwanda went out to a 9-4 lead and led 17-12 after one quarter, but Mitty fought back behind the play of mostly junior star Morgan Cheli and freshman sensation McKenna Woliczko to take a 33-29 lead at the half.
The third quarter was a classic back and forth affair that saw two ties and seven lead changes with Mitty holding a 50-49 lead on a basket by Cheli entering the final period.
When Cheli scored with 5:12 left, the Monarchs had extended the lead to 58-51, and when Woliczko made two free-throws and a basket it was 64-57 with 2:28 remaining.
Etiwanda clawed its way back and when freshman Arynn Finley scored, was fouled, and converted the three-point play, it was tied at 64-64 with 1:25 remaining.
A free-throw by Morris and a pair of free-throws by Cheli gave Mitty a 67-65 advantage with 58.5 seconds to play.
Morris was then fouled and calmly made the free-throws and it was 67-67 with 41.8 seconds remaining, but on the inbounds pass Mitty committed a turnover.
Etiwanda got the ball and the Eagles were setting up a play when Mitty almost got a steal, but couldn’t come up with it resulting in the held ball that set up the final sequence.
Archbishop Mitty (28-3) now holds the record for most state title game appearances with 14, breaking the record it held with Brea Olinda of Brea, but despite winning three straight Northern Regional Open Division championships the Monarchs are 0-3 in Open Division state title games and 6-8 overall.
“It’s a tough pill to swallow,” Phillips said. “But I think we gave them all they could handle.”
Mitty is looking like it will finish No. 3 in the final rankings and No. 1 in Northern California. Phillips loses a lot of senior talent, including Loyola Marymount-committed Maya Hernandez, but Cheli and Woliczko return, and if Cheli can play a full season unlike this year when she missed most of it with a foot injury, and Woliczko continues to mature and improve, the Monarchs will be very formidable next season.
Etiwanda will finish No. 1 in the final expanded rankings and will be the State Team of the Year (officially named on Monday). The Eagles finally proved all the naysayers and doubters wrong by winning the grand prize. They do lose some senior talent but Smith and Morris return and that does not bode well for next year’s opponents.
“It seems like people keep asking if we’re that good,” posed Delus at the end of the press conference. “Tonight we proved we’re not a pushover, we’re a powerhouse.”Division II Girls
Central (Fresno) 52,
Bonita Vista (Chula Vista) 41
The ability to make shots was at a premium in the CIF Division II state championships.
Northern Regional champion Central only shot 32.1 percent on 17-of-53 overall from the field and 1-for-10 on three-pointers, but despite getting 28 more shots than Central, Southern Regional champion Bonita Vista was considerably worse after the Barons only converted 18.5 percent of its shots overall and an abysmal 2-for-27 from beyond the arc.
After all was said and done, the difference in the game was pretty simple. While both teams had a hard time finding the basket, one girl was there to clean the glass, and as a result of her efforts on both ends of the court, Central’s Talia Maxwell turned in one of the most impressive double-double performances in CIF state championship history.
Maxwell, a 6-foot senior forward, finished with 24 points and 24 rebounds, and with the rebounding total she etched her name in the annals of CIF championship game history. With 24 rebounds, Maxwell broke the record of 21 set in a D2 title game that was previously held by Ami Forney of Newark Memorial-Newark who did it in 1997, and equaled Julia Blackshell-Fair of Fairfield Vanden in 2017.
The 24 rebounds was also just one shy of the record of 25 shared by two-time Cal-Hi Sports Ms. Basketball State Player of the Year Terri Mann, who accomplished the feat in the 1987 Division I title game for Point Loma of San Diego and equaled by 1997 Ms. Basketball Erin Buescher from Rincon Valley Christian of Santa Rosa in the 1997 Division V title game and Haley Van Dyke of Moraga Campolindo in the 2017 Division III title game.
“I knew she had a special ability from the time I started coaching her in seventh-grade,” said Central head coach Paul Kariuki. “This season she’s been putting up these kinds of numbers every game.”
For the season, Maxwell came into the game averaging 24.1 points and 8.8 rebounds per game, but in the four-game run to the D2 state championship she had 37 points and 12 rebounds in an opening round win over Sacramento St. Francis, 42 points and 11 rebounds in a quarterfinal win over Hayward Moreau Catholic, and although Marin Catholic held her to 13 points and nine rebounds, it was enough to help send the Grizzlies to Golden 1 Arena in Sacramento on Saturday for their date with Bonita Vista.
Central (23-12) trailed only once at 7-5, but a 20-4 run in which Maxwell had 11 points gave the Grizzlies the cushion they needed to withstand a late run by Bonita Vista that at one point had the lead down to 48-41 before Central scored the last four points with the final tally fittingly coming on a basket by Maxwell.
“It started clicking for us at the end but it was a little too late,” said Bonita Vista head coach Tristan Lamb. “The whole time we said we’re going to find the basket but we needed two more minutes.”
“Fortunately they didn’t have enough time,” Kariuki said. “And we were able to milk the clock to the end.”
Sophomore Grizzlies’ guard Illlicia Davis nearly had a double-double of her own after finishing with 10 points and nine rebounds.
Bonita Vista (23-10) got 17 points from senior Kaylyn Buchanon-Lamb, and a double-double 14 points and 11 rebounds from junior Mahliya Wilson.
“We did not envision it ending this way,” Kariuki remarked. “It was an ugly win but we’ll take it.”
Division V Girls
Bret Harte (Angels Camp) 62, Marina (Huntington Beach) 39
Having the experience of playing in an early game at the Golden 1 Center and having the skills and athleticism of senior standout Ariah Fox sparked the Bullfrogs to their first-ever CIF state title.
Fox made her presence known early with her speed down the floor and being able to set up her teammates for open three-point shots. She helped Bret Harte jump out to a 10-0 lead to start the game, to a 32-20 lead at halftime and it was an advantage that the Bullfrog girls never wavered from.
“Absolutely (it made a difference),” said Bret Harte head coach Jeff Eltringham about his team having played in the CIF Sac-Joaquin Section finals at the Golden 1 Center. “We knew the morning routine, knowing the floor and knew what to expect.”
Ironically, the Bullfrogs (26-7) lost in that previous game to Valley Christian of Roseville. They got revenge on that team in the regional semifinals in a game played not at Valley Christian as is almost always the case in similar regional rematches but at Bret Harte.
Eltringham thought perhaps that his team being seeded higher in the regionals than the team it just lost to in a section final was due to strength of schedule. It’s also very possible, though, that the CIF seeding committee made a mistake (similar to the one on the boys side involving Bosco Tech and Lynwood that was actually fixed after the CIF released its seedings and pairings).
That situation didn’t prevent the run that the Bullfrogs went on in their quest to win the CIF title. And after they got past Valley Christian, they had to travel all the way to McArthur in the far northeast corner of the state just last Tuesday to get past top seed Fall River, 58-47.
Fox finished with 22 points, 15 rebounds, four assists, two blocks and five steals. She was teary-eyed in the post-game press conference but said they were happy tears.
“This is kind of an end of time for me playing basketball with these girls,” she said. “I wasn’t thinking about (playing in this arena). I was just doing the best that I could.”
Freshman Rylee Bradley was the catalyst for Marina’s drive to the state final and did her best to keep the Vikings relatively close. Bradley ended with a game-high 23 points.
“We talked and they definitely had an advantage of having played here before,” said Marina head coach Danny Roussel, whose team (21-16) was making its school’s first-ever state title game appearance. “We didn’t give up hope until there were a couple minutes left. We had one game when we were down by nine with four minutes to go, clawed back and won in OT. That win actually started this run.”
Tiana To of Marina also was in double figures with 10 points. Makenna Tuthill added 10 points and three blocked shots for Bret Harte.
Harold Abend is the associate editor of CalHiSports.com and the vice president of the California Prep Sportswriters Association. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Don’t forget to follow him on Twitter: @HaroldAbend