By PHIL BARBER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
SACRAMENTO — The Montgomery girls finished strong Saturday night at Florin High, showing the heart that took them to the CIF Division 2 State Basketball Championships. They will not be moving on, however, because of their perplexing inability to get out of the gate.
The fifth-seeded Vikings didn’t score their first basket until 5:20 had elapsed in the first quarter of this first-round playoff game. And after going into the locker down by just two points at halftime, they went the first 4:45 of the third quarter without scoring.
Those two droughts proved difficult to overcome, and No. 4 Florin hung on for a 41-37 victory. It was a better result for the Panthers against a Redwood Empire team. Last year, they were eliminated from the state playoffs by Casa Grande.
Montgomery wound up hitting just 21.9 percent of its attempts, on 14-of-64 shooting.
“There’s gonna be times when that happens,” Vikings coach Steve Bell said. “Unfortunately, it may have happened at the wrong time tonight. I just love the way these guys fought back. They don’t give up, they play hard. There were times when could have just packed it in, and they didn’t.”
Senior power forward Claire Donnelly, perhaps Monty’s best player, has been a force inside for the Vikings all season. But she found the going tough Saturday against Florin’s tall and active frontcourt players, particularly Dalayna Sampton and Rhianna Jackson. They collapsed on Donnelly practically every time she touched the ball in the paint.
“That’s what we do,” Florin coach Larry Price said. “We’ve played against numerous teams that had big girls like her. Now, man, she’s a big force. But our 2-3 zone basically shuts down a lot of big scorers.”
Donnelly’s plight wouldn’t have crippled the Vikings so much if they had hit more of their outside shots. In a CIF first-round victory over Pleasant Valley on Wednesday, they were lights-out from 3-point range. Against Florin, those shots weren’t falling. Time and again, Montgomery kicked it around the arc for open looks, and the ball usually clanged off the rim.
“We were taking the 3-pointers a little too early,” Monty senior Chantal Evett said. “We should have looked inside a little more. And we just have to hit those shots when they come to us. We didn’t get it done tonight.”
Florin controlled the boards, too, getting many more second and third shots than shorter Montgomery.
The Vikings (25-8) never led in this game. And yet they were never truly out of it. Down 16-9 in the second quarter, they scored five straight, including a 3-pointer by senior Olivia Harris-Bloom, to cut the deficit to two points. Florin (24-9) scored the first nine points of the second half to pad its lead to 27-16, only to see Montgomery battle back with seven points in a span of 1:30, Harris-Bloom again leading the way with five of those points. And when the host Panthers stretched it to 35-27 with 5:06 left, the Vikings parried again on an old-fashioned three-point play by Donnelly and a long-distance 3-pointer by junior Madison Nordby.
A couple minutes later, with 2:25 remaining, Nordby (the shortest player on the court by a wide margin) smacked another 3-pointer to cut Florin’s lead to 38-36. There were nearly as many Monty fans as home fans in the gym, and they were rocking right about then.
But Florin’s Daijah Joe-Smith hit a free throw, Nordby missed a trey from the corner and Sampton scored inside with 1:05 left to make it 41-36. By the time Angela Hess hit a free throw for the Vikings, there were just nine seconds on the clock, and they would not score again.
Montgomery kept it close on the strength of its aggressive defense. With quick hands flying everywhere, and the Panthers frustrated by trapping double-teams, the Vikings forced Florin into 18 turnovers.
But Monty’s chances took a hit when Donnelly picked up her third foul with 4:47 left in the third quarter and was forced to sit for most of that period. “Obviously, I don’t like to foul,” Donnelly said. “It was hard not to be in the game at that point. I had to be a little more careful (when I came back in) — keep my hands up but not make contact.”
Sampton, very athletic for her size, was the game’s only double-digit scorer with 16 points. Joe-Smith scored nine for the Panthers, and Deja Conger had eight.
Typically balanced, Montgomery’s top scorers were Nordby with nine, Harris-Bloom with eight, Donnelly with seven and senior Michelle Sweeney with six.
A senior-laden team, Montgomery will have to rebuild next year. It will be hard to replicate this year’s atmosphere, according to several members of the team.
“All these girls are best friends,” Evett said. “It makes us hard to stop.”
Bell noted his team’s camaraderie. “They’re just a great group. It’s one of those things where they all come together, they all support each other. That’s just something innate to this group. They just step up and help each other and encourage each other. It’s like a domino effect. Once one gets going, the others get going.”
The dominoes started toppling here Saturday night, but a big one was left standing. The Vikings must head into their offseason while Florin advances to play No. 1 seed St. Francis of Mountain View on Tuesday.
You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at email@example.com.