By RICHARD J. MARCUS
FOR THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
With 4:30 to play in Friday night’s North Bay League girls basketball tournament championship game at Santa Rosa Junior College, the scene was just as it should be.
The longtime crosstown rivals Vikings and Panthers were tied 44-44 in a boisterous, jam-packed Haehl Pavilion in a game with all the drama and intensity that a matchup of this magnitude should have.
In the end, it was second-seeded Montgomery (22-6) that accelerated down the stretch to win 60-48 and take the tournament title. Top-seeded runner-up Santa Rosa (22-6) won the NBL regular season, with the teams splitting two regular-season contests before the Vikings’ win Friday.
“The girls stayed focused and disciplined,” Montgomery coach Steve Bell said. “I’m really proud of how they played.”
The Vikings led 30-22 at halftime, but the Panthers wore the lead down to 36-31 by the end of the third quarter, then took a 46-44 lead with 3:14 to play after a fast-break layup by the Panthers’ Devin Murray.
“I thought we had a pretty good shot at winning (at that point),” Santa Rosa coach Steve Chisholm said. “We had some momentum, and we were getting transition buckets.”
Montgomery, however, took off in the final 3 minutes, outscoring the Panthers 16-2 to close out the game. During the stretch Montgomery’s Ashlee Wilson hit a critical 3-pointer, a 2-pointer and converted 4 of 6 free throws.
“I knew I had to finish strong on whatever shots I took,” Wilson said. “We all had nerves going into the game, but we helped each other through it.”
Wilson led all scorers with 13 points. Olivia Harris-Bloom added 10 points for the Vikings.
Santa Rosa was led by Katie Daly with 12 points and Murray with 11 points. The Panthers’ 6-foot-4 force in the post, Morgan Bertsch (15 points per-game average), was held to seven points and struggled to get good looks against Montgomery center Claire Donnelly (seven points) who guarded her closely.
“Our game plan against Morgan was Claire, Claire and Claire,” Bell said. “Claire did a great job tonight. She does so many things to help the team.”
“Claire did a good job on Morgan,” Chisholm added. “Montgomery was (also) doubling down on (Bertsch).”
When Montgomery took the lead in the closing minutes, Santa Rosa was forced to foul, putting the Vikings on the foul line for numerous one-and-one opportunities. The Vikings were clutch, hitting 10 of 12 free throws in the fourth quarter.
“Free throws were the key,” Bell said. “We hit a few big shots at the end and had some big stops.”
Montgomery also prospered in long balls with a 6-1 advantage in 3-point shots converted.
“We missed a lot of opportunities and Montgomery shot the ball very well tonight. They were the better team tonight,” Chisholm said. “They have a seasoned group with a lot of experience.”
In fact, eight of the 14 Vikings on the roster are seniors who ended their NBL career with the league tournament title.
“My eight seniors are very happy,” Bell said.
“They all played and contributed.”
The game began as a see-saw affair before Santa Rosa took a 13-9 lead after a Daly layup with 1:18 to play in the first quarter. Montgomery then went on a 21-7 run over the next 8 minutes to take a 30-20 lead with 1:14 left before the break.
“I think we were a little jittery and nervous, especially in the first half,” Chisholm said. “Our game plan was good, but we didn’t execute.”
Santa Rosa was more poised in the second half when the Panthers made their run to close the gap and briefly overtake the Vikings before Montgomery’s winning burst at the end.
“Santa Rosa is a good team,” Bell said.
“They battled us the whole game.”
The win for Montgomery dampens, if not erases, the sting of its upset loss to Casa Grande in the last game of the regular season that dropped the Vikings into second place in the final NBL standings, depriving Montgomery a first-place tie with the Panthers.
“This win feels great,” Wilson said. “After that loss to Casa it feels good to win this one.”