On to the championship game

The spotlight that comes with being the No. 1 seed in a playoff tournament can be blindingly bright, especially for younger teams with little playoff experience. So far, the Half Moon Bay High School girls varsity basketball team has proven up to the task, winning Thursday to move on to the Central Coast Section Division IV basketball championship game on Saturday.

The Half Moon Bay girls looked a little shaky at first, but with a rapid tempo and a frenzy of forced turnovers, the Cougars (23-3) prevailed 53-44 over No. 5 Scotts Valley (16-14) on Thursday night at Menlo School. With the win, the Cougars are a victory away from securing a CCS title. That will be decided against Monte Vista Christian at 4 p.m. on Saturday at Palo Alto High School.

The Half Moon Bay varsity boys team fell in their own semifinal game on Thursday. The Cougar boys lost, 56-52, to Carmel at Hartnell College.

Within the first few minutes of the girls game, the Falcons’ strength became apparent. Inside the paint, forwards Lauren Ambiel and Ella Giguiere shot a high percentage from the post. The Falcons started the game on a 6-0 run before Half Moon Bay coach Antonio Veloso called timeout. The biggest adjustment the Cougars made going forward was easier said than done, but they made it their priority to keep the ball out of the paint. The swarming defense led to turnover after turnover.

Abby Kennedy scored 13 points and was a force on both ends of the floor. Her defensive intensity kick started the offense.

“We came out here thinking we were the No. 1 seed,” Kennedy explained. “Then we realized, ‘Oh, we have to work for it.’ We came out as hard as we could and when our shots weren’t dropping we had to use our effort.”

The Cougars took their first lead of the game thanks to a sequence from Kennedy and Alli Dioli, the MVP of PAL-North, who finished with 19 points. Kennedy stole the ball in the passing lane, raced down the court and was fouled but made her layup attempt. She missed the 3-point opportunity at the line, but Dioli grabbed the rebound and was fouled on her attempt. She nailed both free throws to give the Cougars a 15-14 margin, a lead that was highly contested but they would not relinquish.

“That’s the pace we like to play,” Veloso said. “We like to push it up. Which on the flip side, you have a lot of turnovers, but as long as it’s an aggressive turnover you can live with it. Stuff we can’t live with is if you don’t shoot a gap or run the floor.”

For the next two quarters, the Cougars maintained a slim lead as the Falcons challenged them to make big shots. Defensively, the Cougars locked down on rebounds as fast break points off turnovers became the bread and butter of the offense. They outscored Scotts Valley 13-9 off 10 turnovers in the second quarter. Ahead by six points going into the fourth, 3-pointers from Dioli, Kennedy and Genevieve Belmonte finally began falling and gave the team some separation.

The Cougars will need every bit of scrappy and fundamental play against Monte Vista Christian, the No. 2 seed in the tourney.

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