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Gritty defense, mental strength and unsung heroes paid off in the clutch — and proved just enough for Christain Brothers’ first title since 2008....

Gritty defense, mental strength and unsung heroes paid off in the clutch — and proved just enough for Christain Brothers’ first title since 2008.

  By JIM McCUE | Senior Contributor

  When the going got tough in the Sac-Joaquin Section Division III girls final, the Christian Brothers Falcons got going. Led by 18 points from junior Alicia Gonzalez and 15 from senior Niel Valmores, including a pair of game-clinching free throws with 5.5 seconds remaining, head coach Ron Gully’s team showed grit in earning a 61-56 decision over Vanden-Fairfield at Sleep Train Arena.

  “They were a bigger, stronger team than us,” Gully said of the Vikings, “but tonight I think that we had the bigger heart and we wanted to finish the game off maybe a little bit more.”

  The Falcons’ desire was built through a rigorous nonleague schedule that included high-level competition at the Oak Ridge Tournament and West Coast Jamboree in the Bay Area. They also faced the adversity of preparing for league play without the services of Valmores, the team’s point guard. She was out for a seven-game stretch against perennial powers like Sacred Heart Cathedral-San Francisco, Nevada Union-Grass Valley, and Miramonte-Orinda. 

  “At the beginning of the season, we didn’t say that we wanted to win section. We didn’t even say that we wanted to win league,” Gully said. “We just said that we wanted to be the toughest team every game. 

  “That was our goal, and I think that helped us finish this tonight.”

  Vanden took its first lead at 35-34 late in the third quarter and also led 39-38 in the fourth quarter, but Christian Brothers dug deep each time and found a way to regain the lead and eventually hold off the Vikings. Gonzalez scored eight of her game-high 18 points in the final quarter, using exceptional ball-handling skill and athleticism to find openings to the basket.

  “Everybody knows about Ana (Burch) and Niel, but (Gonzalez) really came on at the end of the season, and showed what she could do tonight,” Gully said.

  While Gonzalez ran the floor and sank a number of clutch shots to maintain the Falcons’ lead in the fourth quarter, senior captains Sarina Munoz and Valmores sealed the victory by hitting 4 of 4 free throws in the final 30 seconds (Christian Brothers converted only 18-of-34 attempts from the foul line for the game).

  Gully pointed to a daily practice drill — the “Monarch” drill, in which the players are forced to make free throws or watch their teammates suffer with wind sprints for each miss — as instrumental in keeping his team sharp during the league season.

  “Our free throw shooting is not as good as I think we can be, but when it mattered tonight at the end of the game, I think that (preparation and practice) paid off.”

  Prior to the championship game, the Falcons had not been tested since a 72-58 nonleague loss at Oakland Tech on Jan. 19. Christian Brothers rolled through the Capital Valley League, beating their league foes by an average of 35 points per game, and won its first three postseason games by an average of 45 points, forcing the players to reach way back in time for the experience of a tight game.

  “In the preseason, we stuck together, even without our quarterback (Valmores),” Gully said. “This team held together then and believed in themselves, and I think that definitely helped us tonight.”

  The Cougars (24-7) advanced to the CIF Norther Regional playoffs, where they are confident that they can improve on last year’s run that ended in the second round on the road. With the section championship, Christian Brothers’ seeding will be improved, giving the Falcons more opportunity to fight their battles on their home court.

  “I know that we got beat pretty bad by (NorCal power) Miramonte earlier in the season, but that was without our point guard,” said Gully. “I think the state championship is a total possibility.”

  “This is my favorite team I’ve ever coached,” he added. “They’re my girls.”

  And tough ones, at that.

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