UPDATED: The Half Moon Bay High School girls varsity basketball team is a Central Coast Section champion and now moves on to the state tournament. The Cougars beat Monte Vista Christian, 50-41, in the CCS Division IV title game in front of a raucous crowd of supporters who made the trip over the hill to Palo Alto High School on Saturday afternoon.
The Cougars (24-3) will now advance to the California Interscholastic Federation state championship regionals, which begin Tuesday. They are set to play Caruthers High School of Fresno at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, March 3, at the Cabrillo Unified Event Center in Half Moon Bay. Caruthers was the Division IV state champion in 2019.
The varsity boys team also heads on to the state tourney on Tuesday. The No. 13 Cougar boys play at No. 4 Saint Mary's at 8 p.m. in Division III.
Half Moon Bay led most of the way on Saturday on the neutral court. However, the No. 1 seed in CCS Division IV needed a spark in the third quarter after falling behind briefly. The Cougars only had one third quarter point through more than six minutes of the quarter and the Mustangs used the dry spell to go up 28-27.
The Cougars responded with frenzied defense and timely shooting.
"Getting the ball moving and finding open shots helped," said freshman Alli Dioli, the MVP of the Peninsula Athletic League-North who is a leader on the team. She finished with 11 points, including 9 in the second half.
"We got more rebounds and started playing better defensively," she said.
Also deserving mention were Abby Kennedy and Genevieve Belmonte. Belmonte finished with 13 points and Kennedy had 18 and also earned the Steve Stearns Sportsmanship Award from the CCS.
"They know Alli Dioli very well," said head coach Antonio Veloso. "There was not one open look she got all game. The thing with Alli Dioli is she is slowly gaining the confidence to let things come to her and not force."
The attention Dioli drew left driving lanes for players like Kennedy.
"Kennedy is just this big heartbeat that keeps on going," Veloso said.
The Cougars jumped to an early lead, scoring again and again with fast breaks and long outlet passes to streaking teammates. Half Moon Bay led 13-9 after the first quarter and 26-18 at the half.
But the offense sputtered after the break. Monte Vista wing Marissa Cortes hit a pair of 3-pointers to bring her team to within a point. Paloma Ramirez put the Mustangs ahead with a drive at the 3:39 mark in the third quarter.
Veloso was unhappy with the pace of the game at that point.
"We slow it down, we're going to lose," he said, noting that the Mustangs benefitted from some timely shooting that didn't last.
"Cortes was knocking those things in," he said. "Then, all of the sudden, she disappeared."
That was due to fierce Cougar defense that led to turnovers.
In the fourth quarter, Dioli and Belmonte hit big free throws to seal the victory.
"I knew that we had a special team," said Dioli, who is playing her final high school games with big sister Bella Dioli. "I just didn't really think we would be able to accomplish this. It feels good."
This version corrects to 18 the number of points credited to Abby Kennedy.