Trailing by as many as 18 points in the fourth quarter, Turlock Christian pulled to within eight with 2 minutes and 39 seconds to play, but the rally ran out of steam and the Eagles fell to Valley Christian 59-52.
It was the second consecutive season that Turlock Christian lost to Valley Christian in the Sac-Joaquin Section Division VI girls basketball final by a margin of seven, dropping the 2014 title matchup 54-47.
“This was a disappointing loss; the girls really felt this one,” said Edwin Santiago, who is 179-65 (.734) in eight seasons as the Eagles’ head coach, but falls to 0-for-4 in section championship contests. “But we win with dignity and we lose with dignity. This is a life lesson about being able to bounce back when things don’t go your way.”
Things certainly didn’t go the Eagles’ way in the third quarter, when they were outscored 25-11. Things got no better in the fourth as the Lady Lions embarked on a 13-0 run en route to their biggest lead the game.
But out of nowhere, Turlock Christian found life and began chipping away at the lead.
With 2:39 left in the contest, and down by a dozen, junior guard Meghan Mark (13 points) stroked a three-point field goal and was fouled on the attempt. She sank the free throw to complete the rare four-point play and suddenly the Eagles were back in it.
McCalister Russell, who led Turlock Christian with 14 points, was instrumental in the comeback, gobbling up key rebounds and giving the Eagles second-shot opportunities.
But Valley Christian was able to hit its free throws down the stretch – the Lady Lions hit 11 of 16 from the stripe in the fourth quarter – and got a couple of key buckets late from Lily Hagerty, who scored 17 points in the third quarter to help put her squad in front for good.
“I felt like I needed to do something for our team and be a presence out there,” said Hagerty, who finished with a game-high 27 points. “To be honest with you, in the first and second quarters, I let the emotional side of the game get the better of me
“They took it from us in volleyball (semifinals) and we really wanted this. This was a big deal for our seniors.”
Turlock Christian opened the game on a 9-0 run and led 21-16 at the break.
“They made some good adjustments to our 1-3-1 press,” said Santiago. “But Lily was the difference. She was a different player in the second half. I had to call a timeout at one point just to defuse her energy. She was just too much for us to handle.”
Despite the loss, Turlock Christian’s season still has life.
By virtue of reaching the section final, the Eagles automatically qualify for the Northern California regional tournament. They’ll find out Sunday by 5 p.m. who and where they play on March 11.