Gauchos edge Sonoma, 35-34

By PHIL BARBER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

PETALUMA — Some basketball games are described as track meets. This one was more like a football game. Steelers vs. Ravens, no less. Players knocked down opponents more often than they knocked down shots, and defense was the order of the night as Casa Grande held on for a 35-34 victory over visiting Sonoma Valley in a Sonoma County League tournament semifinal on Thursday.

Casa Grande's Stephanie Sack brings the ball up against Sonoma Valley on Thursday night. Sack had 16 points in the Gauchos' 35-34 win. Photo by Crista Jeremiason / The Press Democrat

Sophomore guard Lyndsey Murnin won it for the Gauchos on a free throw with 18 seconds left, and sophomore swingman Kiana Davis sealed it with a rebound in traffic after Sonoma’s Annie Studdert missed from 12 feet in the closing seconds.“All you can ask for is a shot at the end,” Sonoma coach Sil Coccia said after the game. “If you don’t knock it down, hey, there’s nothing you can do about it.”

Both sides were left to ponder how Casa Grande could escape with a victory while scoring just 13 points — and hitting only four field goals — in the second half.

It helped that junior point guard Stephanie Sack, daughter of Casa coach Dan Sack, started the game with two quick 3-pointers, and bombed a 25-footer to beat the shot clock later in the first quarter. The Gauchos went up 7-0, built the lead to 15-6 near the end of the first period, and pushed it to 22-10 with 5:41 to play in the second.

The Dragons wouldn’t go away. They rarely do. They had only three double-digit losses this season, none of them in league play. Sonoma hangs around by rebounding well and playing such tough defense. Really, Coccia’s team does everything but shoot.

“We’ve played 27 games, and I’m waiting for us to get hot,” he joked.

The Dragons held Casa Grande scoreless over the final 5:41 before halftime, then scored the first basket of the second half to trim their deficit to 22-18. When Studdert drilled a 3-pointer at the 2:25 mark of the third quarter — Sonoma’s first of the game — the visitors were down just 27-26.

Sonoma Valley took its first lead of the night, 30-29, on Studdert’s score off an offensive rebound with 3:20 left in the game. There were two ties and three lead changes over the remainder of the contest. Casa Grande went to the free-throw line four times in that span, with senior center Elaine Weaver getting there twice, and Davis and Murnin once each.

Each Gaucho hit 1 of 2. Coaches would like better than 50 percent from the stripe down the stretch, but on this night it was good enough to make a difference.
Murnin got her opportunity after receiving a long pass from Sack under the basket and getting fouled hard by Sonoma senior forward Ellie Ceja. Murnin missed the first free throw, then was iced by a Sonoma timeout. No matter. She got a little forward roll on the second shot and it fell through.

In the locker room afterward, Dan Sack asked his girls if they hadn’t felt a twinge of déjà vu when Studdert hit the go-ahead basket late in the game. The Dragons junior had done much the same thing at Sonoma Valley on Jan. 6, in an even choppier game that Sonoma had won, 30-27.
Unlike the two previous head-to-head matchups (Casa Grande won here on Jan. 27), Sack decided to press Sonoma for practically the whole game. It was a bit risky, because the Dragons handle the ball well, but as Sack said: “I felt we needed to keep them away from the basket, just to take time off the clock and make ’em work.”

When Sonoma Valley scored the first points of the third quarter and cut Casa’s lead to four points, Sack called off the press, fearing his girls were tired. Stephanie, who spearheads the pressure, turned to her father and asked, “Why aren’t we pressing?”
Casa Grande returned to the plan, and it worked. The Dragons turned over the ball 18 times in the game.

And the Gauchos once again showed true resilience, a trait they have been force-fed this season.
Sack figured he’d have a strong team in 2010-11. But by the time they played their first game, the Gauchos were missing three key players from the previous year. One senior guard, Margi Osmundson, left basketball to concentrate on soccer, and another, Jordyn Enes, broke her clavicle in three places on the soccer field. Junior forward Gretchen Harrigan, a powerful rebounder, was suspended from activities after an on-campus altercation.

Sack was left with an 11-girl roster made up of one senior, two juniors, five sophomores and three freshmen. They were joined by three JV call-ups Thursday. Three underclassmen appear in Casa’s starting lineup. But the youngsters came through.

“A young team is supposed to collapse,” Sack said. “But when we got behind, we found a way to score.”

Stephanie Sack led the Gauchos with 16 points (13 in the first half), while Davis had six rebounds and three steals. Studdert and Ceja, a ferocious rebounder at 5-foot-7, scored 12 each for Sonoma Valley, and Jersey Witous added six.
Casa Grande (18-9) will face Analy in the SCL final, Saturday night at Santa Rosa JC. Sonoma (16-11) awaits its seed in the North Coast Section Division 3 playoffs.

You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com.