CONCORD, Calif. – Ever since Archbishop Mitty-San Jose head coach Sue Phillips won her first of six CIF state championships in 1999 her motto has always been about winning in March.
Now, after a wire-to-wire 72-63 victory over Carondelet that avenged its lone blemish, a 61-50 loss in late December at the West Coast Jamboree, Mitty has won a record 13th CIF Northern Regional title. The Monarchs also tie for the most ever with Brea-Olinda-Brea who won 13 Southern Regional championships.
With the Tuesday night win at De La Salle, Mitty (30-1) advances to the CIF state title game on Saturday evening where the Monarchs face Sierra Canyon-Chatsworth in the Open Division championship at the Golden 1 Arena in Sacramento.
“You want to peak in March,” Phillips remarked. “It’s always a process. Of course we wanted to win that game in December. Make no bones about it, but on the same token sometimes you need setbacks to get the attention of the team. From those growing pains is why we are where we are today.
“Throughout the playoffs we’ve had a tremendous level of focus and intensity,” Phillips continued. “We’ve used an aggressive, attack mentality, and tonight I thought we did a fantastic job of doing that.”
That aggressive attack mode started with the opening tip-off when Texas El-Paso-bound senior Siena Guttadauro banged home a three-pointer, Seattle University-committed Noemi Bariteau was fouled shooting a three-pointer and made two free-throws, and then Guttadauro scored to give Mitty a 7-0 lead.
Stanford-bound Talana Lepolo scored for Carondelet after the Cougars were held scoreless by the pressure defense of Mitty for the first two minutes, but Guttadauro nailed another three-pointer. After junior Maya Hernandez scored Mitty had a 12-2 lead and the Monarchs were rolling.
“Getting an early lead was extremely important,” said Guttadauro. “Against a team like Mitty you have to get an early lead or it’s just going to be back and forth all game, so getting a lead from the beginning was a great start. We got lucky with that.”
Guttadauro would finish with a team-high 19 points (three three-pointers with four steals. Seattle University-bound Makayla Moore came off the bench, and just like she’s done throughout the playoffs, the senior wing was a huge contributor and added 15 points and five rebounds.
Sophomore sensation Morgan Cheli wasn’t part of the early Mitty flurry, but she had an outstanding all-around game on both ends of the court. Cheli finished with a double-double 14 points and 11 rebounds with five assists, two steals and two blocks. Bariteau added 13 points (two three-pointers), three assists and two steals. Hernandez was the fifth Monarchs player in double-figure scoring. She had 10 points along with five rebounds and four blocked shots.
Carondelet closed to 18-11 after one quarter, and then after Zoe Gregerios hit back-to-back three-pointers off assists by Lepolo the Cougars drew even at 24-24, but they were never able to take a lead. Mitty finished the half strong and had a 40-33 at intermission.
Despite the early lead the third quarter was where the game was won. Mitty outscored Carondelet 13-4 in the first four minutes of the second half and the lead bulged to 55-37 on a basket by Guttadauro. When Bariteau knocked down a three-pointer it was 65-47 before Lepolo scored to close out the third with Mitty holding a 16 point lead. Part of Carondelet’s third quarter problems was Lepolo was playing with three first half fouls.
Lepolo, who was blanketed by four different combinations of double-teams using just about every Mitty player the first three quarters, was not about to go out quietly. She scored the first eight Cougars points in the final period, 10 straight including the final basket of the third, and ended up with 12 of Carondelet’s fourth quarter points. Her basket with 3:19 left got it down to 69-61, but that was pretty much a last gasp for the hosts. Lepolo would finish with a game-high 32 points plus six assists, four rebounds and three steals. With her points and assists Lepolo had a hand in 44 of the Cougars 63 points.
“We played with so much heart today,” Bariteau remarked. “Even when they had their runs we didn’t let down and stayed composed throughout the whole game. We wanted this win so bad.”
Carondelet head coach Kelly Sopak pretty much stated the obvious.
“When you play a team like Mitty it’s already an uphill battle,” Sopak said. “We dug ourselves a hole and they withstood our runs. They deserved it.”
For Lepolo its then end of a short one-season era at Carondelet but the beginning of a new chapter in her life
“I’m really proud of this team,” Lepolo said. “We were brand new, new staff and new girls. “If you would have told me two years ago that we would be fighting for state I would have thought you were crazy.”
“We had this great chemistry off the court and special chemistry on the court. We became sisters,” continued Lepolo fighting back tears.
There was a special guest in attendance, and with her play Lepolo surely didn’t disappoint her future coach Tara VanDerveer of Stanford
“For her to be here meant a lot,” Lepolo remarked. “It was the first time she’s seen me in person because of all the COVID stuff. “It’s easy to perform well when you’re up by a comfortable lead but she saw me having to fight adversity.”
While Lepolo will be off to The Farm as Stanford is known, her season has come to a close.
Mitty, however is off to the Golden 1 Arena where they will face Sierra Canyon-Chatsworth. The Trailblazers (29-2) avenged one of their losses when they defeated La Jolla Country Day 63-62 in the state CIF Southern Regional Open Division semifinals.
On Saturday the SoCal Open No. 3 seed travelled to top-seed and national No. 2 Etiwanda and came away with a 60-51 victory. That win avenged a 69-57 loss to Etiwanda in the CIF Southern Section Open Division championship two weeks ago. Junior superstar Juju Watkins led Sierra Canyon with a huge double-double 29 points and 13 rebounds with four blocks. Sophomore sensation MacKenly Randolph only had seven points but she helped Watkins control the glass with 16 rebounds.
The match-up on Saturday in Sacramento will re-unite Watkins with Phillips. Watkins was a member of the FIBA Americas Gold Medal winning 2021 USA Basketball U16 team that was coached by Phillips and was selected as the top player in the tournament.
One would have to think that if anyone can come up with a game plan to corral Watkins it would be Phillips having coached her.
“Juju is a walking bucket,” Phillips texted when asked about a plan to slow Watkins down.
It all comes to a head on Saturday evening.