Mason Nesbitt: Canyon-Valencia was matchup we all wanted

Canyon and Valencia players battle over a loose ball during a basketball game at Canyon. Katharine Lotze/The Signal
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This was the matchup we wanted all along, right?

When the CIF released the Division 1AA girls basketball playoff bracket two weeks ago, there was gold at the end of the rainbow. It just wasn’t clear whether we’d find it.

We have. Thank you, Canyon and Valencia for navigating the Southern Section’s second-highest playoff grouping and treating us to a fourth meeting this year and the first all-Santa Clarita Valley girls hoops final since 2006.

It’s appreciated.

MORE: Canyon, Valencia coaches react to location of CIF final

The matchup, set for 1 p.m. Saturday in Anaheim, oozes drama and provides opportunity for redemption.

It features Valencia’s fearsome foursome and Canyon’s stellar junior combo.

It pits two deep, talented teams against each other in a crosstown bout on the biggest of stages.

The game, theoretically, could have been moved to the SCV, likely played in a packed-out College of the Canyons gymnasium. But the teams didn’t want that.

Why should they? Honda Center in Anaheim is their reward for sharing the Foothill League title for the third time in five years and for surviving an onslaught of league-champion playoff opponents.

“I would want to play somewhere like that,” said Valencia coach Jerry Mike. “I think they earned it.”

They did.

Canyon’s Talia Taufaasau, right, steals the ball from Valencia defender Kenadee Honaker at Valencia. Dan Watson/The Signal
MORE: Canyon girls hoops earns 2nd straight trip to the finals
On selection Sunday, Valencia’s road to Anaheim looked steeper than Canyon’s. Because the Vikings and Cowboys shared the league title, a coin flip decided who would advance as the league’s No. 1 seed.

Canyon won the flip. Valencia hit the road — packing its “A” game for a butt-whooping tour of Southern California.

Valencia (26-5) dropped North Hills League champion Canyon of Anaheim, 60-23, on the road, then avenged last year’s heartbreaking quarterfinal loss to West High of Torrance by knocking off the Warriors, 61-46, in a road game that wasn’t even that close.

Vikings senior Kayla Konrad has been nearly unstoppable, scoring more than 20 points in each postseason contest and breaking the program’s all-time scoring record along the way. Her concern, though, has centered on sending out Valencia’s most-celebrated senior class with a title.

Konrad, Jade Jordan, Ashlee Ane and Kenadee Honaker — who along with junior point guard Chyanne Pagkalinawan, have played together since third grade — have owned the Foothill League but haven’t found playoff success.

Until this year.

The Vikings advanced to their first-ever semifinal with a commanding win over Los Alamitos and earned a title shot by controlling Oaks Christian of Westlake Village.

MORE: Valencia girls hoops advances to CIF final

Valencia’s message after the game: Bring on whoever.

Well, the “whoever” turns out to be the team Valencia knows better than any, one that’s been as clutch any squad this postseason.

The Cowboys (21-9) have prevailed in all three of their playoff contests by eight points or less. This from a team that lost six games by eight points or less earlier in the season.

The Cowboys have matured. Frankly, they grew tired of the wheels falling off shortly before the finish line.

Valencia’s Kayla Konrad (23) goes up for a shot as Canyon’s Rachel Bowers, right, and Gabby Sanchez, center, try to block her during a basketball game at Canyon on Tuesday. Katharine Lotze/The Signal

“Our girls are hungry and they’re angry and they’re tired of coming up short,” Canyon coach Jessica Haayer said in early February.

Canyon was hungry not just to beat Valencia but to return to, and win, a CIF championship game after losing in the Division 2AA final last year.

Saturday, it can accomplish both.

“We know what it feels like to get there from last year,” said Canyon junior guard Talia Taufaasau. “But this year we want to get it done. And it couldn’t be another way than us playing Valencia.”

A win Saturday would be Canyon’s second win over the Vikings this season, having outscored Valencia by 20 points in the second half on Feb. 3 to snap the Vikings’ 23-game Foothill League winning streak.

The Vikings won the first two matchups of the year, snagging a one-point win over Canyon in a preleague tournament championship and beating the Cowboys in league on Jan. 17 by two points on Konrad’s buzzer-beater.

We can only hope round four is as exciting. We know it won’t be decided by one player.

The Cowboys and Vikings are each built on stars and crucial role players.

Konrad may lead the Vikings in scoring Saturday, but Jordan’s shooting and Honaker’s defense will be just as crucial.

Canyon 6-foot-3 junior Rachel Bowers’ ability to dominate the paint will be complemented by Taufaasau attacking the hoop and by the shooting of Alaina Garcia and Daisy Cardenas.

Someone will win their first CIF title Saturday. We all get to enjoy the ride.

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