Hart Indians girls’ basketball fell just short of a CIF championship on Saturday, after the team lost to the reigning CIF champion La Salle Lancers for the second consecutive year in playoffs.
The Lancers and Indians both exploded early in the game in a high-scoring first quarter. However, La Salle’s defense was tight from the second quarter on, as they held Hart at 12 points or less for the three latter periods.
The Lancers won the wild game, 63-54, with 10 lead changes along the way. La Salle was led by sophomore Kaden Cortes. The sophomore made shifty moves to get to the basket in her big 21-point, four-steal and three-rebound championship performance.
Hart sophomore Morgan Mack and Cortes took over early in the game. The two exchanged bucket after bucket in the first quarter, where they scored the bulk of their points.
Mack tallied 20 points, five rebounds and three assists.
La Salle freshman Casey Higgins has been a presence in the paint all season in her first year of varsity. The 6-foot center was held without a rebound in the first half but finished the game strong with 19 points and seven rebounds.
Hart seniors Vanessa Zavala and Elyse Mitchell were assigned to slow down Higgins and played well. Zavala finished with seven points, six rebounds and five blocks. Mitchell tipped and picked off passes to Higgins in the post, leading to her final line of six points, four rebounds, two rebounds and a pair of steals.
The Lancers (30-3) led by two going into the third quarter, where both teams made defense a priority.
“We played a tremendous team in Hart,” Lancers coach Scott Wiard said. “They came out and shot the ball incredibly well in the first quarter. That’s certainly not the way you want to start but I’m proud of our kids for locking in after their explosive start offensively and holding them to 34 the rest of the game is certainly impressive.”
The Lancers’ defense forced tougher shots as Hart’s hot start from the 3-point line slowly dwindled. The Indians finished the first half shooting 4-of-8 from behind the arc, but ended the game at 31.8%.
2022 CIF Player of the Year Audrey Chen was also a nuisance on the boards for Hart. Chen snagged four of her six rebounds off the offensive glass and was close to stealing dozens of the Indians’ rebounds.
Hart (28-4) will continue its season in the state tournament with another potential shot at La Salle. The Indians’ mentality of only looking forward will pay dividends as they prepare for state and won’t wallow on this game.
“It’s been a really fun journey and I’ve never really looked too far ahead because you just want to take it day by day, week by week, game by game,” Hart senior Laney Grider said. “So, I think part of that is focusing on what’s right in front of you, instead of what’s down the stretch. Because like, yeah, we just lost, but we still go to state and now we have to focus on that. So we just have to keep forgetting what happened yesterday and focus on what’s gonna happen today and tomorrow. I think that’s what makes a good team.”
La Salle and Hart split games last season, with the Indians winning the regular-season contest.
“We were really happy to play this game because obviously it was the championship game, too, but we played Hart twice last year,” Chen said. “They won one and we won one, so it’s like who’s better? Then we pull it out today as a team and I think the coaches are all really helpful. They scouted and we watched film, day and night. They know what [Hart’s] going to do and they tell us. They give us the answers to the test.”
The Indians’ seniors took time to reflect on their four years in the black and red jersey, as they were crucial parts of building the program into the powerhouse it is today.
“Personally for me, seeing us now, is just crazy,” Zavala said. “Freshman year, our team was not that good but coach Mike has helped us a lot. He knows what he’s doing and he’s helped us grow as players. My game compared to the freshman year… Now, my love of basketball came back, and I just want it.”
Hart will graduate four seniors, three of whom will soon be collegiate athletes. It’s been a wild four-year ride for the girls as they worked to reconstruct the program but they’ll have their chance at one last run together at state.
The Indians will take on the Imperial Tigers, the runners-up in Division 1 of the CIF San Diego Section, on Tuesday at home at 6 p.m. in the first round of the Division 2 state tournament.