After a monster first half from point guard Aaliyah Garcia, College of the Canyons women’s basketball needed its other stars to shine.
Garcia was hounded with double and triple teams by the West Los Angeles Wildcats in the second half, to the surprise of no one.
The game came down to the final possession, where an unlikely hero stepped in. The Cougars had hot hands in Garcia and Jade Sims. However, shooting guard Hannah Tolentino, who was having an off night, found herself wide open and drilled the go-ahead 3-point shot with 12 seconds left on the clock.
Tolentino told head coach John Wissmath she heard everything he had said in their previous timeout. However, once the ball hit her hands and she saw how wide open she was, her mind went blank as she launched the game-winning shot.
The Wildcats were forced to take an inside shot on their final possession and two free throws from Garcia iced the game, 79-76.
Garcia torched West LA (12-7, 2-3) in the first half, where she scored 21 of her 26 points on the night. The point guard has flashed her driving and 3-point shooting skills since playing at Canyon High School. However, on Wednesday, Garcia found herself feasting on points in the midrange game.
“I think I’ve definitely elevated my game over the years,” Garcia said. “When something’s not working, I have to try another thing and I just have to figure it out one way or another.”
Canyons (11-8, 4-1) started off the game well on defense but it took time for the offense to start cooking. West LA jumped out to a 10-0 lead despite COC forcing five turnovers on the Wildcats’ first 10 possessions.
Tolentino made the first and last field goals for the day and was the first to put Canyons on the scoreboard after an offensive put-back.
The Cougars also got a huge boost off the bench from freshman Mariah Payan.
“The person that I was really proud of and was excited about was Payan,” Wissmath said. “She had some step-ins, some steals, some good rebounds, and clutch shots. She really made a difference in us and it sparked our crew.”
Payan added eight points, six rebounds and four steals.
Garcia nearly outscored West LA from that point on until halftime. Coming out of the half, Wissmath knew she’d draw extra attention.
Wildcats sophomore Cheyanne Whitfield sparked her team back into the game in the third quarter. Whitfield averages a double-double and made COC pay with four of her 12 rebounds coming off the offensive glass.
Whitfield led West LA with 23 points, 12 boards and a trio of assists.
“We had to keep fighting and already knew that they were going to be good and (Whitfield) played a damn good ball game,” Wissmath said. “She hustled after shots, made shots, she was going to the rack, and we didn’t do a very good job rebounding.”
Despite Whitfield’s big day and COC being on the wrong side of another height disadvantage, West LA only outrebounded the Cougars by one.
The freshman Sims answered the call for help in the second half. Sims found easy points in transition and made some nice passes to keep Canyons in the game throughout West LA’s 26-point surge in the third quarter.
Sims finished the game with 27 points, seven assists, five rebounds and four steals.
Canyons is now off to a solid start to Western State Conference play as winners of four of their first five games.
“I think we’re working really hard every day and it’s showing on the court,” Garcia said. “I hope you can keep building and moving forward.”
COC will hit the road on Saturday for a WSC road matchup with the undefeated Glendale College Vaqueros (17-2, 5-0). However, Wissmath’s next COC action will be Friday as the coach opens up the season for the other program he leads in Canyons: softball.
It’ll be a busy time for the coach who is in just his second year as the head of women’s basketball but leads Canyons softball for the 17th year. Wissmath is grateful to COC Athletic Director Chad Peters for bringing him onboard with basketball and hopes to keep building both programs this season and the years to come.
“I’m thankful for the opportunity and for Chad believing in me that I could do this job,” Wissmath said. “The girls make it possible and the community makes it possible. Hopefully we can keep bringing in kids, really turn this place around and see if we can’t get us to a state championship.”