By RICHARD J. MARCUS
FOR THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
The value of sinking free throws down the stretch of a tight game can’t be overstated, especially in a low-scoring defensive battle when points are at a premium.
Case in point: the Montgomery girls basketball team’s 34-29 championship bracket semifinal victory over Arcata on Friday night in the Lady Puma Invitational at Maria Carrillo High School. In a game that was an offensive challenge for both teams, the Vikings (6-0) hit 7-of-8 free throws in the fourth quarter while the Tigers (4-1) were 2-of-5 — a difference of five points, the exact margin of victory for Montgomery.
“It was important to make our free throws at the end, I thought that was key,” Montgomery coach Steve Bell said.
The Vikings move on to play Maria Carrillo in the championship game Saturday at 8:30 p.m. The Pumas defeated St. Vincent, 49-27, in Friday’s other semifinal.
The Vikings lost to the Pumas in last year’s tournament final.
“We are going to learn a lot about our team tomorrow,” Bell said. “There are so many variables early in the season that it’s tough to gauge where a team is at.”
Arcata plays St. Vincent at 7 p.m. for third place. In other Friday games, Analy defeated Whitney, 49-46, in overtime and Tamalpais beat Roseland Prep, 64-54, also in overtime. Analy will play Tamalpais at 5:30 p.m. Saturday in the consolation bracket final and Whitney will play Roseland Prep at 4 p.m. Saturday for seventh place. The last game between Maria Carrillo and St. Vincent tipped off late.
Interestingly, Montgomery struggled at the free-throw line for the game (11-20) but came alive in the fourth quarter when it mattered. Arcata was 9-16 from the line for the game.
“Free throws were a problem for us, we just weren’t focused,” Arcata coach Dusty Scofield said. “Montgomery’s number 10 (Chantal Evett) hit her free throws down the stretch and that helped them.”
Evett led all scorers with 13 points and was the sparkplug that helped ignite the otherwise tepid Vikings offense. Luaren McCoy led the Tigers with seven points.
“It was an ugly game but we worked through it,” Evett said. “One thing we did well was drive the lane for layups.”
It was a point-scoring desert throughout as both defenses had the upper hand most of the contest. Only one 3-point shot was converted, that by the Vikings Olivia Harris-Bloom.
“We were a little flat offensively. I give credit to Arcata for that, they were aggressive on the boards,” Bell said. “I’d like us to show a little bit more patience offensively. Defensively we did an outstanding job tonight.”
The sentiment was similar on the Arcata side.
“Give credit to Montgomery. They played a great defensive game and their physicality gave us problems. Offensively we need more discipline,” Scofield said. “I was really proud how we battled tonight.”
Montgomery, which defeated Arcata in last year’s tournament by 10 points, broke out to an 11-5 lead by the end of the first quarter and held a 17-10 lead at halftime. The Tigers came back with an 11-7 edge in the third quarter to narrow the Vikings’ lead to 24-21 entering the fourth quarter.
Every time the Tigers would score a bucket in the fourth quarter the Vikings would answer, mostly by hitting free throws. Arcata could never dent Montgomery’s lead down to less than three points in the final eight minutes.
Despite the tournament’s first-day glitches (time changes for games and the pulling out of a team — Lowell of San Francisco, replaced by Roseland Prep), Maria Carrillo coach Chris Walton said he was happy with how the tournament was going.
“We had a few bumps the first day (Thursday) but the second day (Friday) has gone smooth,” Walton said. “Thanks to all the parents, we couldn’t have done it without them.”