Canyon girls hoops aiming for 2nd straight finals trip

Canyon's Rachel Bowers (44) shoots against Vista Murrieta at Canyon. Dan Watson/The signal

The same opponent that tried to prevent the Canyon High girls basketball team from its first win of the season is now the biggest obstacle to the Cowboys earning their most important victory this year.

More than 13 weeks and 29 games since a 15-point victory Nov. 21 over St. Anthony of Long Beach in the opening round of the Palisades tournament, visiting Canyon (20-9) must defeat the Saints again Saturday at 7 p.m. in the CIF-Southern Section Division 1AA semifinals in order to secure a return trip to the finals.

St. Anthony (17-13) won the Division 4-A crown last year, with Canyon losing to Newbury Park in the Division 2-AA final, the Cowboys’ first appearance in a championship game since falling to Hart in the Division 1-A title contest in 2006.

Canyon’s Krystal Amato (11) aims a 3-pointer against Vista Murrieta at Canyon last week. Dan Watson/The signal

“The margin for error in Division 1-AA is this big,” said Canyon coach Jessica Haayer, holding up her thumb and index finger only millimeters apart following Wednesday’s 49-43 win over Sonora.

“We have 13 of the 15 back from last year and that gives us enough experience. They know what it takes to win in the playoffs. They’re battle-tested and they know how to come back in the fourth quarter and that’s a testament to how far we’ve come as a team.”

Canyon held Sonora without a field goal in the fourth quarter, scoring the final seven points and keeping the Raiders scoreless for the final 4:25. St. Anthony rallied from a seven-point halftime deficit to outlast top-seeded Redondo Union in overtime.

“Our shots aren’t always going to fall, but our defense is all about heart,” said junior Talia Taufaasau, who had seven points and three assists against Sonora to help Canyon reach its third semifinal in seven years.

“As long as we continue to play defense, our offense is going to come. Everyone knows what it feels like going into a semifinal and now we know how to close out a close game, which we struggled with earlier in the season. We’ve grown as a unit and become stronger and we have more confidence in each other and trust one another more now.”

With St. Anthony boasting four players on the front line at 5 feet 10 or taller, including 6-4 junior Semaj Smith, Canyon junior Rachel Bowers will be tested by the Saints’ defense. Bowers had 16 points and 22 rebounds against Sonora, but only managed six points and eight rebounds in the first meeting with St. Anthony.

“I just remember that they’re big, so we know it’s going to be a challenge,” said Taufaasau, who had 13 points, eight assists, five rebounds and four steals against the Saints in the season opener.

Canyon’s Selasi Mawugbe (13) scores against Vista Murrieta defender Keilanei Cooper (10). Dan Watson/The signal

“The good news is we don’t rely on one or two players. Someone always steps up and that’s the best part about this team. We’ve really challenged each other this year to make everyone better.”

Canyon is trying to become the first Foothill League girls basketball team to reach consecutive finals since Hart made three in a row from 2002-04. The Cowboys could also secure a fourth showdown this season in the final with rival Valencia, which is making its first semifinal appearance Saturday against Oaks Christian.

“It’s pretty surreal to win again and to be in the same place as we were in 2016,” said Canyon junior Gabby Sanchez, who was instrumental in holding Sonora’s leading scorer Meghann Henderson without a point the final 21 minutes Wednesday.

“At first, it was hard for us to win close games, but now that we’re in the playoffs, we’ve all taken it more seriously to make sure we get it done. We realize that we’re in it together and we’re much tougher on each other in practice because we don’t want to make the same mistakes we made last year (in the finals).”

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