Girls basketball season ends in crushing loss in CIF finals, blowout in State

SHOOT: Lady Firehawks watch a shot bounce off the rim as Lions center Simone Swain (No. 12) controls the paint.

BP Photo by Ezra Fax

SHOOT: Lady Firehawks watch a shot bounce off the rim as Lions’ center Simone Swain (No. 12) controls the paint.

By Mati Hurwitz, Sports Editor

Shalhevet’s girls’ basketball ended a deep playoff run in a 55-37 defeat to the CIF Division 6 Champion Valley Christian Academy Lions. Due to a scheduling conflict regarding Shabbat and Valley’s church schedule, the game was delayed two days to March 10 at Oxnard College.

Over 100 members of Firehawk Nation were in attendance at the 5 PM tipoff. The student section was clad in brand new white t-shirts celebrating the moment, and senior David Ohana ran around the gym in the mascot costume. Family and friends comprised much of the crowd in addition to most of the staff, highlighted by Mr. Buckley’s cheerleading.

Turnover-prone throughout the game, the Lady Firehawks were constantly pressured and dug too many holes early and late. However, the second-place finish culminated a successful season and was the highest in school history, also matching the boys’ run from 2013.

Mulholland League MVP Sigal Spitzer led the Firehawks with 17 points while Lions athletic center Simone Swain and sharpshooter Ellie Hedlund each dropped 18.

Before the game, Coach Ronnie “Flava” Winbush said he wanted his team to be ready for the big game.

“Hopefully we’ll have an attacking mentality, poised, excited, relishing the moment,” Coach Flava said just before tipoff, anticipating his first coaching appearance in a CIF Final.

But despite the electric crowd and pregame pump-up rituals, the Lady Firehawks came out of the gates the polar opposite of what their coach intended.

After choir director Joelle Keene conducted 14 “Choirhawks” in their rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner,” the Lions quickly scored two buckets and had a 4-0 lead early in the first quarter. Shalhevet had been dominating other teams with steals and ball pressure, but Valley was beating the Lady Firehawks at their own game.

Running a successful 2-2-1 full court trapping press, the Lions jumped passing lanes and converted steals into easy shots and layups.

“The press worked to our favor making the court a little smaller,” said Lions coach Peter Fortier after the game.

Shalhevet did not run back in transition and looked tired and slow. The girls spent the majority of the quarter on defense because of quick, unforced turnovers in the backcourt.

The Lady Firehawks only caught one break in the first quarter, and that was when Simone went down with a right ankle injury.

“I was going up for a rebound and I could hear it pop a couple of times,” Simone said after the game. “It motivated me to keep pushing through.”

Senior Joelle Edry played with energy and hit a banker and a hook shot in the opening quarter, but the fireless Firehawks trailed 21-7.

“It’s got to be us!” Coach Flava exclaimed after the quarter. “That’s all we got.”

With 7:39 left in the second, Sigal picked up her second foul and went straight to the bench.

Senior leadership and defensive intensity started to kick in as Joelle and Jennie Drazin became the focal points for the Lady Firehawks. They hit consecutive layups and rebounded the ball better. Joelle said they would not go down without a fight, by “staying positive and keeping the team together as one.”

However, Simone got her ankle taped up and returned to the game. Sigal did not play the rest of the quarter and ended the half with 3 points, all free throws. Her star power and intensity were on the sideline while Shalhevet, fighting behind Joelle’s 10 points, trailed 34-18 at halftime.

The crowd knew why Coach Flava had to take Sigal out, but didn’t quite accept the risk he took.

“It was a coaching decision,” said Coach Flava. He explained that he didn’t want to risk Sigal getting a third foul. She finished the game with three.

“I can’t contradict what Flava wanted to do,” said Sigal. “It would be hard to dig us out of this hole we created.”

The second half seemed like the same old song and dance, at least at first. Ellie was draining threes, Shalhevet turned the ball over, and Simone controlled the glass and the paint while producing points, too. The Lady Firehawks looked lifeless, but not discouraged.

Then, with the scoreboard showing Shalhevet down 40-23, Sigal, with a look of determination in her eyes, took the game in her hands. She took the ball in the backcourt, aggressively raced down the sideline and created her own dribble course around three Lions.

She penetrated the lane well and was the offensive power for the Firehawks, adding 11 more points to the scoreboard in the third quarter alone.

“It was my responsibility and my turn to do that,” Sigal said later. “No one player can make it happen by themselves.”

Coach Fortier game-planned around Sigal, anticipating she might go on a run of her own.

“She’s a tough player and we knew that we had to play her,” said Coach Fortier. “She’s a good ball player.”

Sigal and the Lady Firehawks went on a four-point run from around the 1:30 mark in the third and continued the momentum into the fourth. On the sideline, a calm-mannered Coach Flava kept saying to get on “6-0 runs” to cut their monstrous deficit.

“There are no 20-point plays,” Coach Flava told his players on the bench.

Freshman Liora Rabizadeh drained a three-pointer to cut the lead to 10. The crowd gained back its spirits and grew more vibrant by the second.

A few plays later, Sigal made another full-court dash. She was fouled in motion, hit the layup, and the free throw and all of a sudden, the Lady Firehawks trailed by a mere 5 points, 40-35!   Mr. Buckley was running circles under the basket.

“We knew they were going to play us tough,” said Coach Fortier.

“I think my teammates got nervous when we cut the lead,” added Sigal.

With an opportunity to create a one-possession ballgame, Sigal hesitated to draw contact and threw up an awkward shot five feet from the rim. That ended the Firehawks four-minute, 12-0 swing.

“I was expecting to kick the ball out to a guard on the wing,” Sigal explained. “So I was out of position to put up my shot.”

Moments later, the Firehawks got stripped in the backcourt and Simone converted an and-one and the free throw. They culminated an 8-0 run with another Ellie three-pointer and a Simone layup. The Firehawks were down 48-35 with a few minutes to go.

It was too late, and the Lions roared to their first school championship. When the final buzzer sounded, Shalhevet had been outscored 15-2 during that final stretch.

“We kind of gave up and didn’t think that we could pull through,” Sigal concluded.

After the game, there were mixed emotions on the team. Some girls were laughing and smiling, others did not want to talk to anyone. Some had their heads up, others folded in their arms.

The girls reached their first State Appearance, a feat the boys’ team did not achieve last spring when they could have, because they went to the Red Sarachek Tournament in New York instead.

Losing meant they girls had to play the top-seeded team at the state finals two nights later.  Sure enough, on Wednesday, March 12, they lost 62 – 19 to heavily favored La Jolla Country Day, who played in CIF San Diego’s Open Division before being moved to State Division 5 with Shalhevet.