Hart Indians girls’ basketball put on a show in the fourth quarter of its state tournament opener, and pulled away with a double-digit win over the Imperial Tigers.
The Indians won the game 59-43, after a 9-0 run swerved the previously tight game as Hart outscored Imperial 20-8 in the final quarter. Elyse Mitchell fueled the offense and finished with a game-high 21 points along with two steals.
“This was great for me because I’ve had off games in my last few games,” Mitchell said. “So, it was great to bounce back and hit my shots.”
Hart’s full-court press made the difference in the end as the Indians (29-4) forced turnovers and pressured every ball handler in the Tigers’ backcourt.
Imperial (26-6) dominated the rebound game early. The Tiger guards were tracking down long rebounds while forward Sierra Morris was cooking Hart.
Morris went a perfect 8-of-8 from the free throw line and finished with 16 points, seven rebounds and a block.
Indians point guard Arleigh Eav nearly eliminated Imperial’s second-chance points as the junior started chasing down every rebound she could.
“I think rebounding is something that I’ve been needing to work on for a long time just because I need to utilize my athleticism a lot more,” Eav said. “I think tonight I did a lot better job with that and it showed.”
Eav finished with six rebounds, four points, three assists and two steals.
Hart captain Laney Grider also added six rebounds and led the Indians to a 28-22 halftime lead after a 12-2 run to retake the lead.
Grider tallied 13 points, six rebounds, five assists, a steal and one block.
Head coach Jerry Mike knew the rebounding needed to improve in order to get Tuesday’s win over a tough Imperial team.
“We responded because they were hurting us on the glass early,” Mike said. “They’re a tough team, fast. They’re not going to dazzle you with their offense but they’re rough and tough, they rebound and they know their roles. So, it’s a good win. That’s a Division 1 runner-up. That team has nothing to feel bad about. They had a great year, and they’re really well coached.”
Both teams dropped their CIF championship games but Hart now advances in the Division 2 state bracket. The Indians came so close to winning a CIF championship but were bested by La Salle. Hart has the game in its rear-view mirror and will opt to go all in for a state banner in the Hart gym.
“We don’t care who’s in our way, we’ll play whoever,” Mitchell said. “It’d be good if we get La Salle so we can get our revenge but we’ll just wait and see who we get.”
Hart has posted numerous second-half comebacks this season and prides itself on being a strong second-half team. The Indians will still aim to improve this deep into the season and become a strong full-game team.
“We definitely don’t want to be just a second-half team,” Eav said. “We want to get better about being more consistent throughout the game. That’s something we’ll work on.”
The Indians have three starters going on to play collegiately next year, and even more talent on the roster capable of taking over a game.
“It’s so fun when the courts open a little bit, this team thrives,” Mike said. “It’s good to see Elyse do that but we also have other girls that can do it. I’m lucky, I understand that. I’ve done this a long time, I know what I have here and I just want to keep riding it out as long as, as long as we can. But Elyse, that’s why she’s playing college ball next year, because she can do stuff like that.”
Hart will now advance to the second round of the Division 2 bracket and face the Rancho Christian Eagles (26-6).
Rancho is led by point guard Aaliyah Stanton, who averages more than 30 points a game. The Eagles still get plenty of scoring outside of Stanton, as four of her teammates average double-digit scoring. Rancho also enters the state tournament hot as the Southern Section’s 3A champion. The Eagles have won every playoff game so far by at least 23 points.
The Indians’ defense will be a test for Rancho as the two are set to clash on Thursday at 7 p.m. at Rancho Christian in Temecula.