RANCHO CUCAMONGA >> It’s not supposed to be easy getting to the CIF-SS finals, even when the No. 1-ranked Etiwanda girls basketball team takes a 19-point lead to the fourth quarterback.
But despite missing two starters down the stretch, the Eagles held off No. 4 Mater Dei 64-53 in an Open Division pool play game at Etiwanda High School.
The Eagles (27-0) advance to the championship game and will host No. 2 Sierra Canyon on Saturday, Feb. 26. It will be Etiwanda’s first trip to a CIF-SS championship game since 2015.
The next game for Mater Dei (23-5) will be in the CIF State tournament.
“All we have to do is beat you by one point,” Etiwanda coach Stan Delus said.
Etiwanda was never seriously threatened, but it was more of a struggle than it looked like it would be.
That’s because Kennedy Smith, who had 15 of her 17 points in the first half, missed almost all of the final 11 ½ minutes of the game with leg cramps.
“That hasn’t been a problem. I guess we need to get her more water,” Delus said.
Etiwanda was also without starter Destiny Agubata, who picked up three fouls in the first half before fouling out with 3:20 to play.
The Etiwanda lead, which was as large as 21 points late in the third quarter, was trimmed to 10, 60-50, on a basket by Caia Elisaldez with 1:56 to play. But the Monarchs could get no closer.
Delus praised the play of freshman point guard Aliyahna Morris (10 of her 15 points in the second half) in keeping Mater Dei at bay.
“As a point guard, it’s my job to stay calm,” Morris said.
While most of Etiwanda’s games have been blowouts, the few close games, like the 13-point playoff opening win over Windward, help the Eagles.
“It’s a big challenge,” junior Sa’lah Hemingway said of playing without two starters. “We had to stay calm the whole game. The Windward game helped us.”
For Mater Dei coach Kevin Kiernan, his team hadn’t played Etiwanda this year but he knew what the challenge entailed.
“We needed to be able to match their physicality,” Kiernan said. “And I don’t know if that was something we were going to be able to do.”
Etiwanda’s press defense resulted in seven Mater Dei turnovers in the first quarter. However it also resulted in not only Agubata picking up three fouls in the first half but also Smith, Hemingway and reserve Talia Garner picking up two fouls before halftime.
So Delus elected to take the press off and focus on half-court defense. Even though Agubata fouled out, Etiwanda was whistled for only five fouls in the second half.
Junior Majesty Cade added 14 points for Etiwanda, while senior Nalani White scored a game-high 23 points and Elisaldez added 13 for Mater Dei.
Mater Dei hasn’t played Sierra Canyon this year, but Kiernan has watched games and expects the Etiwanda-Sierra Canyon game to be a good one.
“Sierra Canyon’s got a great offense, and Etiwanda has a defense, so they’ve got different strengths,” he said.
While the Eagles did not have all their starters available at the end of Saturday’s win, they should have more reinforcements for the final as senior captain Daisia Mitchell is expected to return from a dislocated kneecap suffered in January.