Thrilling win
The Cougar girls came from behind to beat last year's state champs and move on to the second round of the CIF state basketball tournament on Tuesday night. Photo courtesy Rebecca Ruppel

With the game tied at 47 apiece with 27 seconds remaining, the Half Moon Bay High School girls varsity basketball team huddled in a timeout on Tuesday night in the Cabrillo Unified Event Center.

“(Coach) Antonio (Veloso) kept telling us, ‘This is the group. This is the group,’” Genevieve Belmonte said when it was all over. “That’s really all he kept saying.”

Indeed, it was the group.

As Caruthers High School forward Jacklyn Kulow brought the ball up the court, Cougar guard Abby Kennedy picked her up at the top of the key, forced a pass inside, then double-teamed a Blue Raider forward to force a turnover. Belmonte came down with the rebound and was fouled. As the Cougars were in the bonus, the crowd erupted. Belmonte walked to the free-throw line.

The junior forward looked reserved as she centered herself on the free-throw line, ready to take two shots that could give the Cougars a lead with 1.3 seconds remaining. But understandably, she was nervous.

“That was really intense,” Belmonte said. “I did not want to miss those. I had to look away from the basket and reset my mind and look back before I could shoot it.”

Belmonte stayed calm and sank both, which sealed the Cougars (25-3) 49-47 come-from-behind win over Caruthers (28-5) in the first round of the California Interscholastic Federation Division IV state championships. The girls will face their toughest opponent of the season in the state tourney’s No. 1 seed, Colfax High School at 7 p.m. in Colfax, north of Sacramento.

There were notable parallels between the two teams playing Tuesday night. Both were section champs with similar seeding in the tourney. They both played breakneck style and have a young, talented core. Caruthers started three freshmen, a sophomore and a junior.

“We’re the same team,” Veloso said. “We both want to run, press, both won our section. I told our girls, at the end of the day, whoever is more focused and committed to playing together wins this game.”

The Cougars were down by as many as 9 points late in the third quarter against the reigning Division V state champions, but it felt like more. Caruthers’ length and defensive scheme gave Half Moon Bay trouble all night. The Blue Raiders forced loads of turnovers and came down with offensive rebounds against the Cougars.

In the first two minutes after halftime, the Blue Raiders rattled off a 7-0 run to take a 27-20 lead.

Their momentum came to a head when Anna Marshall hit a corner 3-pointer, Kulow stole the ball off the inbound, made a layup while getting fouled and nailed her free throw. That gave Caruthers a 35-26 lead with 3:10 remaining in the third.

But the Cougars fought their way back into the game despite a loss of momentum.

After some back-and-forth baskets, the Cougars got a few stops and chipped away at the lead with clutch shots from Alli Dioli and Ally Co. Caruthers’ trapping and full-court press was solid, except in the waning minutes. It took a disciplined and well-coached team to make the right passes to beat the zone defense.

Late in the fourth quarter, Kennedy checked out of the game for one possession, came back in with under two minutes left and made a crucial pass to Co, who drilled 3-pointer from the right-wing to give the Cougars a 47-45 lead, their first since the second quarter. It came with 1:15 left in the game.

In a tourney as competitive as this one, shots come at a premium and defensive intensity is praised. Now the girls will try to do it all over again in Colfax on Thursday night.

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