LONG BEACH — It was about role players and unsung heroes.
It required poise and mental toughness.
And it showcased the desire and determination of a group that wouldn’t be denied from its season-long goal of returning to the CIF-Southern Section girls basketball finals.
Canyon overcame foul trouble throughout its Division 1AA semifinal Saturday at St. Anthony of Long Beach, relying on significant minutes from several reserves and clutch shooting from multiple veterans to prevail, 62-58, and advance to the program’s third section championship game.
“It’s surreal. I always talk to the girls about this, that there are people in their lifetime as a coach or as a player that never get to be where we are, and to be there twice back to back, it’s so unbelievable,” said Canyon coach Jessica Haayer, who guided the Cowboys to the Division 2AA final last season.
“We’re truly a family and they work together and they have each other’s backs. This was one of our goals back in September and they did it. They took the challenge and it wasn’t easy, and they knew it wasn’t going to be easy. They knew no game would be easy and they understood what they had to do and they did an incredible job.”
Daisy Cardenas made four free throws in the final 1:17, including two with 4.9 seconds remaining to seal the victory for the Cowboys (21-9), who will face rival Valencia (26-5) in the championship game Friday or Saturday. It marks the second time Canyon has been involved in an all-Foothill League final, including a loss to Hart in the Division 1A title game in 2006.
“I always tell myself during practice, in my own head, that ‘this is for the game-winning shot’ or something like that to make me stay focused,” said Cardenas, who had 10 points and eight rebounds.
“You can’t let the crowd distract you, so I was telling myself, ‘Nothing but net.’ Before I shot the ball, I visualized the ball going through the net, so it just helped me to remain focused and know that I was going to make it.”
Despite Gabby Sanchez fouling out in the third quarter and Talia Taufaasau doing the same with 1:27 remaining, in addition to both Alaina Garcia and Rachel Bowers playing the majority of the second half with four fouls, Canyon managed to overcome a five-point, fourth-quarter deficit to become the first Foothill team to reach consecutive girls basketball finals since Hart made three in a row from 2002-04.
Garcia had 21 points and 11 rebounds, with Bowers adding 17 points and 12 rebounds for the Cowboys, who received timely contributions off the bench from Krystal Amato, Selasi Mawugbe and Shauna Van Grinsven.
“My coaches just told me to keep playing defense and to find a way to stay on the floor. I knew my team needed me, so I couldn’t afford to foul out that early,” said Garcia, who scored 14 first-half points to give Canyon a 31-27 lead at the break.
“It’s a team game. We’re never playing with just five players, it’s about everybody on the bench and we needed everyone to win this game. This was the most physical game I’ve ever played in, and we showed so much heart and so much toughness on defense and it feels amazing.”
St. Anthony (17-14), which won the Division 4A title last year, cut the deficit to 58-56 with 44 seconds remaining following a basket by Semaj Smith, who led the Saints with 15 points.
On Canyon’s ensuing possession, Bowers was fouled by Smith with one second left on the shot clock and sank two free throws to increase the advantage to 60-56 with 15 seconds left.
Canyon shot 19 of 25 from the free-throw line, with St. Anthony making 19 of 33 attempts.
“It speaks to how mentally strong we’ve become,” said Taufaasau, who had 12 points and four assists.
“Our problem earlier in the season was not being able to close games because we were playing not to lose. Now we’re playing to win. In the first half, we weren’t playing smart and we were being too passive-aggressive and fouling too much. In the second half, we moved our feet more and played smarter and executed better and that was the difference.”