The Archbishop Mitty girls won a fifth state title by doing what they always do — show up when it counts.
By MITCH STEPHENS | Contributor
“It’s like clockwork,” Archbishop Mitty girls basketball coach Sue Phillips said. Around the third month of each year, ninth-year assistant Joe Guerra makes the pronouncement to any and all who want – or don’t want – to hear.
“Don’t bet against us in March,” he says.
Said Phillips: “He loves to say that to the team and coaching staff. I guess it truly came to fruition this year.”
He just forgot to add February as well.
The Monarchs, showing off a uniquely interchangeable, skilled and versatile squad — not to mention tenacious — especially for such a young team, rolled to their fifth state title with a 56-54 triumph over equally tough J.W. North-Riverside in the Division II championship game at Power Balance Pavilion on March 23.
The week before, Mitty pulled out an even more impressive victory, 53-51 over three-time defending state champion and nationally-ranked St. Mary’s-Stockton, also at Power Balance.
The pair of two-point victories capped a banner 28-5 season and completed a 13-game win streak that started following a painful-but-beneficial 55-49 loss to St. Ignatius on Jan. 27. The Monarchs, with just three seniors on the team, took some lumps early against top caliber competition, but gradually picked up steam to win 23 of their final 24.
As many of Phillips’ teams do, this Mitty steam train powered through its final destination hitting full speed. Phillips is now 557-96 in her 19-year career. Along with the five state crowns, she’s won nine Northern California titles.
“All of them are wonderful and I don’t take any for granted,” Phillips said. “This team believed in one another and bought into what we’ve tried to teach from day one. It’s a very special group.”
Besides team chemistry — “One of the best I’ve ever been around,” Phillips said — what made these Monarchs so special was their ability to adjust.
And boy did they need to when starting 5-foot-8 point guard Vanessa Garner, a Division I college prospect, went down with a knee injury in a 54-51 NorCal semifinal win over Carondelet-Concord.
Mitty had to maneuver on the run — literally.
Garner went down early in the game and the Monarchs fell behind by double digits.
But 6-1 sophomore forward Kelli Hayes moved to guard. Combo guards Emily Dinger (5-10) and 5-9 Kalyn Simon handled the point. Amanda Lovely, a 6-3 forward who is headed to Pepperdine, helped share the ball-handling duties.
Though not as symmetrical or complete with Garner in the lineup, Mitty seemed to get tougher. It bore down on defense, which led to a 17-0 run over almost six minutes, against a very quick and skilled Carondelet, who averaged more than 70 points per game during the regular season.
It didn’t hurt that Hayes, one of the top sophomores in the country, had 21 points and 10 rebounds and Simon had 10 points. A concerted effort to hold down super-quick point guard Natalie Romeo was also key. She averaged more than 17 points per game, but finished with six.
“If all else fails or goes wrong, we can always play defense,” Lovely said.
ULTIMATE TEST — ST. MARY’S
Three days later, Mitty’s mettle, defense and ball skills would be put to the ultimate test against St. Mary’s, ranked as high as No. 8 nationally.
These Rams bend opponents in half with stifling pressure, long-range 3-pointers and a deep and endless bench. They put every foe and coaching staff on edge, with a relentless, unyielding attack that has led to seven state titles, 30 straight playoff wins and 27 consecutive wins in 2011-12.
In the early going, the St. Mary’s pressure was stifling. It caused 11 Mitty turnovers in the first quarter and it trailed 11-8.
But the Monarchs clawed back thanks largely to a tenacious, switching defense that allowed just 31 percent shooting (17 of 55), and aggressive board work (51 rebounds to 32).
They also took care of the ball the last three quarters, utilizing short, high percentage passes and keeping the ball up high against the shorter Rams. Furthermore, they held St. Mary’s leading scorer Courtney Range to just eight points.
It all added up to a historic win for the Monarchs, who fought back from a nine point deficit and scored the game winning basket on a perfect touch pass from senior forward Courtney Lisowski to a streaking Hayes down the middle of the court.
Hayes laid the ball in with 25.9 seconds left to break a 51-51 tie.
“The pass was surreal,” Hayes said. “I was cutting down the middle and it was 50-50 whether she could get the pass there.”
Mitty had to make a couple more stops, which they did, capping a remarkable fourth-quarter defensively. St. Mary’s, which averages more than 75 points per game, was held to eight in the final stanza and 24 points below its season average.
Hayes was everywhere with a game-high 23 points and Lovely was befitting of her name with 12 points and 12 rebounds.
“This is my senior year,” she said after the game. “This is the best team I’ve ever been a part of. We’re so together. This feels amazing.”
Said Hayes: “It was a total team effort. We all had to pick it up without Vanessa.”
Said Phillips: “Defense and rebounding told the story.”
It certainly helped to have Phillips directing the action every moment. From the sideline, she constantly reminded the team to look “forward. Look up. Attack.”
Even with the game on the line. Lisowski, dribbling hard up the left sideline, certainly could have hung on to the ball and slowed things up. But she followed her coach’s season long instruction to be aggressive. Fearless.
“We always try to be the aggressor,” Hayes said. “No matter what time of the game it is.”
And no matter how big a win St. Mary’s was, Hayes said, “we can’t celebrate too long. We have one more to get.”
That was JW North.
Things didn’t exactly go according to plan against North. Many plans went South, in fact.
Simon was supposed to be the defensive stopper. She tied for game-high honors with 16 points and added four steals.
Dinger, who was just 2-for-14 against St. Mary’s, missed five early 3-pointers. She came back to hit three 3s in the second half to also score 16.
“She’s got the shooters mentality,” Phillips said. “Even when they aren’t going in you have to keep shooting and she did and it paid off for us.”
Lovely had trouble shooting, making just 2 of 13. But she made four clutch free throws down the stretch and a key jumper in the fourth quarter. She also had a game-high 12 rebounds.
Then there was Hayes, brilliant all season, especially in the postseason, who couldn’t hang on to the ball. She had eight turnovers. But she also had 13 points.
They needed every one of them to hold off a resilient North team that fought back from an eight-point fourth quarter deficit to make it close. But the Monarchs were too battle-tested, too smart, too good to let that lead slip away.
Two free throws by Dinger, four by Lovely and two by Hayes down the stretch, kept the Monarchs in front.
“It’s a young team, but a composed team,” Phillips said. “They learned how to win. They learned how to persevere.”
They needed all that resolve and perseverance to knock off North, which made one of the greatest turnarounds in state history.
Last season, North was 4-19, but quickly improved to 30-6 thanks largely to three transfers and a new coach.
“JW North lived up to all its billing,” Phillips said. “They were resilient and tough to the finish. I feel very fortunate we came out on top.”
North coach Leonard DeCoud agreed and guaranteed a win in next year’s state championship.
“Going from 4-21 (last year) to where we are now, this was a total win no matter what it says on the scoreboard,” he said. “I’ll tell you what, we’ll be back here next year. I guarantee you that.”
Phillips would never make such a claim. She knows the road is far too bumpy and weather too unpredictable.
But with all but Lovely, Dinger and reserve Margaret Sun returning, the Monarchs are a good bet to return to Power Balance Pavilion next season.
As long as the tournament remains in March.
Mitch Stephens is a national columnist for MaxPreps.com.
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