AHAHEIM – It’s easy to assume that losing in a high-pressure game would sting less the second time.
The tear-strewn and dazed faces along Canyon High’s bench, however, proved that assumption wrong after the Cowboys fell to Valencia, 50-45, Saturday afternoon at the CIF-Southern Section Division 1AA finals at Honda Center in Anaheim — their second CIF finals loss in as many years.
The Cowboys were poised to take the ending into their own hands late in the game, closing to within two points with 1:26 to play, but just couldn’t finish.
Canyon (21-10) had reached this stage before, just last year. They fell to Newbury Park before continuing to the second round of the CIF state tournament.
They even had momentum Saturday after defeating the Vikings (27-5) in their last matchup on Feb. 3, 64-48.
“We were telling each other, telling ourselves, that we’ve been here before, so the feeling was still super cool to be here, but I don’t think we were as nervous as we were last year,” said junior guard Talia Taufaasau.
But Canyon came out flat in the first quarter, trailing 18-7 by the end of the frame and 31-21 by the end of the half.
Valencia’s Kayla Konrad had 14 points by that time. A tough Gabriela Sanchez did her best to guard Konrad, and Sanchez’s performance only improved in the second half before she exited the game with 1:07 left due to an ankle injury.
Konrad finished with 23 points.
“We kind of lit Gabby up at halftime, talked about how Kayla had (14) points,” said Canyon coach Jessica Haayer. “We knew it wasn’t going to be easy. She wanted this badly. You could see it in her eyes. But I think she did a decent job on her in the second half.”
The Cowboys’ performance as a whole picked up in the third and fourth quarters, outscoring the Vikings 11-10 and 13-9, respectively, and reducing the deficit to two points on Selasi Mawugbe’s three-point play with a little over a minute left.
But Valencia hit its free throws, and Canyon didn’t score again until 11 seconds remained.
“They saw the light at the end of the tunnel, and we cut that 12-, 15-point deficit in half and they just went on a run and it was great,” Haayer said. “Fourth quarter is always our quarter. We’ve come back every single time in this CIF run.”
In the fourth, Canyon made five of seven free throws and had 10 rebounds — its best statistics in each category for the game.
However, it also had six turnovers.
“I think those turnovers were critical in the last three minutes,” Haayer said. “We were right in it. We could’ve tied the game, and we just didn’t execute and the pressure got to us and we turned the ball over.”
Canyon’s offense was led by Taufaasau, who had 15 points, four rebounds and two assists.
“She’s a big point of emphasis, just because she runs the show for them,” said Valencia coach Jerry Mike. “I thought she had a really good game for how much we did to her and how much emphasis we had on her. She’s just a really scrappy, tough player.”
Taufaasau wasn’t able to finish the game, however, as she fouled out with 35 seconds left to play.
Rachel Bowers added 10 points and eight rebounds, Daisy Cardenas had nine points, two rebounds and two assists, and Sanchez had six points and three rebounds.
Despite the loss, Canyon has earned a berth to the CIF state tournament. Brackets will be released on Sunday.
“The minute we get back in the gym, we’re focused on the next step, which is state, and hopefully making it farther in state than we did last year,” said Haayer.