NCS girls basketball playoffs: Jaguars turn to their cubs

Gabby Giddings, middle and teammates Rachel Ibrahim, left and Angela Higerida of the Windsor Jaguars practice a press break during practice Tuesday March 3, 2015. (Kent Porter / Press Democrat)

Gabby Giddings, middle and teammates Rachel Ibrahim, left and Angela Higerida of the Windsor Jaguars practice a press break during practice Tuesday March 3, 2015. (Kent Porter / Press Democrat)

By PHIL BARBER

THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

WINDSOR — Basketball coaches are, by nature and professional necessity, control freaks. Few of them go into a season with a plan to rely on unproven first-year players. But during last year’s summer program, it became clear to Windsor girls coach Jeff Paul that his team would rely heavily on its freshman class.

The Jaguars wound up with a crop of four freshman playing varsity, and when they tipped off the season against Analy on Nov. 29, all four were in the starting lineup.

“The first time we did it, and I walked on the court, I didn’t even put together there were four of us,” recalled Gabby Giddings, one of the Fab Four. “I was like, ‘Holy crap, all four of us are out here together.’ So I turned to them and kind of smiled, and I was like, ‘We’re doing this right now.’ ”

Added her classmate Hannah May: “You think about it for so long. You’re in fifth grade, sixth grade. We’re all playing together, we know we want to come here. We’re just really excited. Then reality hits, and you’re on the court and the whistle blows, and you’re going. And Jess is yelling at you, and you’re trying to figure out how to get it together.”

That would be senior Jessica Barbosa, Windsor’s top player and emotional leader. With Barbosa stepping up her game and becoming a more complete player, and with those precocious ninth graders acting like they’ve been there before, the Jaguars have made it to the semifinals of the North Coast Section Division 2 playoffs.

The No. 3 seed in the bracket, they play at No. 2 Dublin Wednesday. And win or lose, the Jags have qualified for the CIF NorCal tournament to follow.

“That exceeded our expectations,” said Paul, in his fourth season at Windsor.

And it hasn’t been easy along the way. Paul drew up a challenging preseason schedule despite his team’s inexperience, and the Jaguars were 4-4 after eight games. Windsor wound up going 9-5 in the North Bay League, but even NBL play was frequently a trial.

“We would hope that with some of the lower-seeded teams in our league that we would beat ’em up a little bit. But that never really came true,” Paul said. “We had to battle with Rancho. They’re improving, getting better. We lost a game up in Ukiah — really got our butts kicked up in Ukiah. … That was a sign of our youth.”

Windsor’s other four NBL losses all came against either Cardinal Newman or Santa Rosa, two of the top girls teams in the section. The NCS seeding committee seemed to recognize that when it made the Jaguars the No. 3 playoff seed. Paul believes his team deserved its slot, but acknowledges that there was a cluster of maybe 11 teams in Division 3 that brought very similar credentials. The seed boosted Windsor’s confidence, Paul said.

The Jaguars (18-11) have responded with a 61-41 victory over Mt. Eden in the first round of the playoffs, and a 57-54 squeaker against Alameda in the quarterfinals. Windsor trailed 43-38 entering the fourth quarter of that game.

“The only thing I could think is, ‘We cannot lose this game. We will not lose this game,’ ” said Barbosa, who moved here from Portugal at the start of her sophomore year. “… We have six seniors on the team, and it could be our last high school game. And we were just like, ‘No. That will not happen. Let’s go, let’s change this.’ ”

Windsor finally took a one-point lead with a minute and a half left, and the outcome wasn’t secure until Barbosa ran down a loose ball near the Jaguars’ bench in the closing seconds.

“Surprisingly confident, and very calm, too,” is how Paul described his players.

And that extends to the freshmen, who seem anything but rattled by their first year of high school basketball.

May, Giddings and point guard Sabrina Simili have started the entire season. Center Mattie Murphy began the year as a starter and still gets regular playing time in Paul’s nine-deep rotation. (Allie Feland currently starts in the post.)

May is Windsor’s 3-point threat. She is the team’s second-leading scorer at 10 points per game, and can handle the ball when called upon. May’s backcourt mate, Simili, thrives on quickness. Giddings, whose older brothers Tanner and Colin were standouts for the boys team a few years ago, averages 8.4 points and 7.2 rebounds. She scored 19 points and grabbed 16 boards in the playoff opener against Mt. Eden.

All of them are valuable complementary parts around Barbosa, who has improved more in the past 2½ years than some athletes do in a lifetime. She had played a little recreational basketball in Portugal, but did not have a competitive sense of the game when she came to Windsor. Her game was beyond raw.

“We were contemplating putting her on the JV team her sophomore year,” Paul said. “But we came into an open gym, she ran and touched the rim, and we said, ‘OK, there’s no way.’ ”

Barbosa’s athletic potential was immediately apparent. She is 6-foot-1, and her long arms and crazy leaping ability allow her to play taller. Her first step is a blur.

“She can shoot and be the first one to the rebound, because she’s so fast,” Paul said.

Barbosa has never coasted on her physical superiority, though. She knew right away that basketball would be more fun if she got better at it, so she went to work. Relentlessly.

“The kid works hard,” Paul said. “She wants to be in the gym literally five hours a day.”

Barbosa showed tremendous improvement from her sophomore to junior year, but she mostly played in the shadow of Kerianne Noonan, the dynamic point guard who ran the show at Windsor for three years. Noonan plays at Hawaii Pacific University now, and Barbosa has taken over much of the on-court leadership.

“If she can stay 30 minutes after practice, she’ll be here, she’ll be running, she’ll be shooting,” May said. “And she’s just a really nice person. … You miss a shot, she’s all, ‘Keep shooting, keep shooting.’ ”

Paul ticked off the many aspects of Barbosa’s game that have improved this season: her footwork, her shot, her free-throw shooting, her court sense, her passing. Barbosa is now among the best girls players in the Redwood Empire, averaging 14.7 points, 12.3 rebounds and 3.1 blocks per game as a senior.

Asked what she can do now that she couldn’t as a sophomore, she laughed and replied: “That would be like maybe 90 percent of the stuff right now.”

The colleges have noticed. Barbosa plans to play at the University of Texas at El Paso next year.

Wednesday’s game will be a tough one. Dublin is not one of those teams clustered at the second tier of Division 2. The 24-3 Gaels are clearly one of the two best teams in the division, along with Carondelet. They have big rebounders and a superb point guard. This sort of opponent might intimidate some young players, but the Windsor freshmen seem immune to anxiety.

“I don’t even think when I’m on the court at this point,” Giddings said. “It just feels natural to be out there.”

You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com, and on Twitter @Skinny_Post.