Quicksand. The feeling that you’re sinking and no matter how hard you try, you can’t get out.
The U-Prep girls basketball team appeared to be stuck in quicksand Thursday as the No. 4 Panthers watched a 45-34 lead over No. 5 Calaveras evaporate in the middle of the fourth quarter. The road team used a 10-2 run to cut the deficit to 47-44 with two minutes remaining. But Calaveras’ sister guards each fouled out within 30 seconds of each other and U-Prep righted the ship for a 53-48 CIF NorCal Division V win. The Panthers advance to play No. 1 West Valley on Saturday — a fourth meeting this season, all Eagle wins, between the Northern Athletic League foes.
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“We had all the momentum. You could feel this place going crazy. You could see the confidence in our girls’ eyes,” U-Prep coach Steven Schuster said. “Their exceptional guards started to dig in and apply pressure.
“It affected us for a bit, but the kids collected themselves, made enough played and stayed calm and confident to get it done.”
Playing without Jordan McCoy, one of the team’s primary ball handlers who underwent shoulder surgery on Wednesday, the lead role for U-Prep shifted to junior Kaleia Mizuta, who scored 13, including hitting 6-of-7 free throws down the stretch to preserve the win.
Mizuta was pestered for 32 minutes by Calaveras’ sister tandem of Bailie and Madison Clark, a freshman and sophomore, respectively. And though the Clarks lacked height, they compensated with a relentless energy and innate court awareness that fueled the team’s fourth-quarter comeback bid.
“They were good and aggressive and it was a little harder losing Jordan to help bring the ball up,” Mizuta said.
The Panthers led from the onset, holding a 14-6 edge after one period and 24-19 lead at intermission.
Calaveras, which has no mascot, cut the U-Prep lead to 20-17 before Mizuta hit a 3-pointer off a Maya Sammut rebound and kick-out assist. It was a theme that helped the Panthers most of the night: Watch Calaveras make a run only to come up with an answer at crucial moments.
The Panthers would open a 10-point lead early in the third after Melanie Lindsey opened the half with a left-corner triple. Kylie Hokanson made 1-of-2 free throws and Mizuta hit from range off an inbounds play that saw U-Prep swing the ball around the horn before the fifth pass found the junior point guard in stride for a 31-21 lead with 4:30 left in the third.
And while Mizuta was hitting big shots, the Panthers had several players step up and fill the void left by McCoy’s absence. Ashlee Kraft grabbed 11 rebounds and anchored the middle of the Panther defense. Lindsey had a knack for finding an open spot to hit a trio of 3-pointers. Hokanson struggled at time with the Calaveras pressure, but fought to find open shooters while adding seven points of her own. Emily Kaney stepped into a starting role and took a momentum-swinging charge on a Madison Clark fast break.
And freshman Kaitlin Cabral dropped double digits, scoring 10 and providing athleticism and calm in the paint.
“Ashlee Kraft has been phenomenal all season. People don’t see that she’s 5-7, extremely active and one of the best athletes on the court,” Schuster said. “And for a freshman to step in and get in the right spots and finish around the basket, not back down from bigger, older bodies and play defense on that end, those two helped put us over the top tonight, also.”
But it was Mizuta who drove the bus to a victory with superb ball-handling, big shots and free throws down the stretch. And even if the Clark sister hadn’t fouled out, Schuster said he had all the confidence in his junior.
“I still love Kaleia Mizuta in that situation,” he said of Mizuta in crunch time. “She’s going to get the ball – she handled it for 32 minutes – and when she had it we were very good. Sometimes we sped up and didn’t play with confidence and that’s where we lost momentum. But even with their best in, we gave the ball to Kaleia and she went 6-of-7 from the line at the end.”
Clinging to a 47-45 lead, Bailie Clark tipped the ball from Mizuta at half court. The U-Prep point reached the ball first near the Calaveras 3-point line before Clark undercut her trying for the steal and picking up her fifth foul with 90 seconds left.
Mizuta hit both ends of the double-bonus for a four-point edge. On the next Calaveras possession, Cabral corralled a rebound off a Vanessa Baysinger miss in the paint and Mizuta was fouled by Madison Clark, her fifth, some 60 feet from the basket, and she sank 1-of-2.
And without the Clarks on defense, Calaveras was forced into the foul game to extend the contest, but Mizuta hit a pair and Lindsey followed with the front end to make it a three-possession game.
The Panthers now turn their attention to their NAL nemesis, having lost 44-31 on Jan. 17, 36-23 on Feb. 6 and, most recently, 29-26 in Saturday’s Northern Section Division IV finals.
“We didn’t know we’d get a fourth shot at them and we’re excited to have it,” Schuster said. “We’re two games away from playing in a really big game and we understand that’s a really long, long, long ways away, but to be two games away with the team we have and the things we’ve gone through, the adversity we’ve faced and continue to face, tonight and moving forward I’m incredibly excited for the kids.”
No. 4 U-Prep 53, No. 5 Calaveras 48
Calaveras 6-13-10-19 – 48
U-Prep 14-10-12-19 – 53
Calaveras (21-10) Strange 2, Cooper 2, Baysinger 4, Nordahl 8, B. Clark 14, M. Clark 18
Panthers (22-11) Sammut 1, Kaney 2, Hokanson 7, Kraft 7, Cabral 10, Lindsey 13, Mizuta 13.
3-pointers – CHS – 2: Cooper, M. Clark; UP – 5: Mizuta (2), Lindsey (3).
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