PIEDMONT, Calif. – Salesian stuck to its identity Saturday night in their NorCal Open semifinal match-up with Piedmont, the same identity which propelled them to an NCS championship a week ago. In a grind-it-out, very physical, and defense-oriented effort, Salesian outlasted Piedmont, 48-45, to advance to the CIF Northern Regional Open Division championship
“This group really wants to win for each other,” Salesian coach Stephen Pezzola said. “I love this group, just heart and soul. They’re gritty. Look at the size. We don’t back down.”
It was the first loss of the year for Piedmont, and they nearly pulled off a last-minute comeback. The Highlanders trailed 45-38 with 1:17 to go, but Madison Hill answered with a three-pointer, and with 14 seconds remaining Eva Levingston barreled down the lane for a fast break layup to draw within two.
On the ensuing inbounds play, Natalia Martinez tried to avoid picking up her fifth foul but was the player chasing ball-handler Sofia Fidelus, and did just that as they raced up the court. Fidelus split the free throws, the Highlanders missed a three-pointer from the corner, and D’yani Bernstine hauled down the rebound and was fouled. She missed both free throw attempts, but with no timeouts, the court was just too long for Piedmont to get off a decent shot.
“Tonight was not our night,” Piedmont coach Bryan Gardere remarked. “We missed a lot of shots that we don’t normally miss, had some uncharacteristic turnovers, but you got to give (Salesian) credit, they did a great job.”
In a score line not unusual for the Pride, only two players reached double figures in scoring, and barely did so at that. But their depth showed as well as eight different players registered a basket versus just four for their opponent. Makiah Asidanya and Madalyn Kanazawa notched 11 points apiece, with Asidanya also getting six boards, two blocks, and two steals, while Kanazawa netted three treys, and that was more than any other player on the floor. Also for Salesian (27-4), Eryn Gardner had six points and 10 rebounds, while Bernstine chipped in six points, three assists, and three steals.
For Piedmont (27-1), Martinez led the way with 20 points, just over half of them coming from the charity stripe. Levingston added 11, while Zamora was held to just six.
“We all had a job and a role,” Asidanya said. “I was just trying to lock in and stay on (Zamora). I was helping my teammates but also staying in my role.”
The Highlanders and Pride had already met once this season, with Piedmont emerging a 69-63 victor at a MLK tournament game. This time around, it was evident early that the scoring would be less potent than in that game. Piedmont led 10-7 after one quarter and at halftime they held a 22-21 advantage.
“We added a few wrinkles to the defense that kind of slowed (Levingston) down,” Pezzola stated. “Against us the first game she’d miss it, rebound, follow up and one. (Zamora) got the Makiah flu. Makiah’s an amazing defender. She doesn’t foul, she moves her feet, but she sticks on you.”
In the third Salesian was able to end the period in front, though only by one, 34-33. In a key sequence of that quarter, the Pride were whistled for a technical after being called for a shooting foul. Martinez made three of four attempts to tie it up at 29, but with 2:42 to go Kanazawa sank a trey, and in the plays that followed Piedmont had a turnover, and Gardner had a block and then a layup.
Asidanya set the tone in the fourth with a steal and layup to open the period, and Maya Love-Sangco made her only bucket of the game, a three-pointer off a Kanazawa assist, to extend the lead to six. Things continued to go south for Piedmont; an offensive foul was followed by a steal and a double dribble call over the next couple of minutes. When Asidanya buried a put-back from the middle of the key at the aforementioned 1:17 mark, the game seemed to be at hand.
While Salesian has had a number of easy victories this season, they’ve also won nail-biters against top competition. Most recently, the Pride got to this game by turning back Folsom in double overtime on Wednesday. Their season has included two wins by a total of seven points in the last two rounds of the NCS championships, a two-point win against Acalanes, and a three-point win at the Nike Tournament of Champions.
A full house came to see the No. 5-seeded Pride go up against No. 1 Piedmont on Saturday. Some fans were actually encroaching on the sidelines just to get a decent look at the action, while a healthy Piedmont student body and the Salesian cheerleaders were amongst the most vocal of the crowd.
“It was a very intense game,” Zamora said. “It was a lot of chaos and we just didn’t focus all the way. It’s heartbreaking that we had to go out like this, but it is what it is.”
“Playing other intense games really helps us come together and communicate and helps us adjust quickly right there in the game,” Asidanya said.
Now Salesian will head to the South Bay on Tuesday to face No. 2 Archbishop Mitty, which downed No. 3 Clovis 63-43 in the other semifinal. The two teams did not meet in the regular season but against common opponents Mitty is 6-1 and Salesian 4-2. The Pride will have a chance to repeat as State Champions as in 2022 they won the Division I title. Mitty won the Open Division Northern Regional last season, and this season earned the CCS Open Division championship.
For Piedmont, which competed in the Division IV NCS playoffs because by rule they were not eligible for the Open, it’s been a decorated season with that nearly perfect record, an NCS championship, and regular season victories over not just Salesian but Cardinal Newman, Bishop O’Dowd, and Mitty as well.
“You got to take the good with the bad,” Gardere concluded. “It’s been good all year. So you got to take this and own this. We still had a chance with 10 seconds left. We knew someone was going to leave here frustrated.”