The Florin High girls basketball players are a resilient bunch.
Just hours after attending a memorial service for a former teammate, the Panthers dug deep Saturday night and held off Montgomery of Santa Rosa 41-37 in the school's first home CIF Northern California Regional girls basketball playoff game.
Zakiya Richmond, who graduated from Florin last year and was a popular player for the Panthers, was found dead in her bed Feb. 25 by her mother, Kelly.
"All we know right now is that she went to sleep and didn't wake up," Florin coach Larry Price said. "I'm so proud of these girls and their resolve through what has been such an emotional time."
Junior post Dalayna Sampton led Florin with 18 points and senior leaders Daijah Joe-Smith and Deja Conger combined for 17 as the No. 4-seeded Panthers (23-9) advanced to Tuesday's Division II semifinals at top-seeded St. Francis of Mountain View, a 50-41 winner over Dublin.
Richmond, a student at Cosumnes River College and a reserve for the Panthers the previous two seasons, was a strong influence on her teammates.
"She was a great locker-room person," Price said. "She was the kind of player who, when you were down, could keep things up."
Joe-Smith and Conger said the memory of their former teammate, whose death came three days before they upset McNair of Stockton 44-41 in the Sac-Joaquin Section D-II semifinals, has added a spark to their late-season run.
"We had her as our motivation to push harder, knowing that this could be our last game," Conger said. "So we wanted to put our heart into it and leave everything on the floor because we're not promised tomorrow."
After No. 5 Montgomery (25-8) whittled a nine-point deficit at the start of the fourth quarter to 38-36 with 2:01 to play, Joe-Smith made a pivotal steal and was fouled. She made made one of two free throws, then Sampton iced the game with a driving layup with 1:05 left.
"Zakiya was like my sister," said Joe-Smith, who had nine points and dominated the boards. "She was at my house all the time. So it's been an emotional ride, and I've dedicated my season to her."
Richmond's death is the latest hurdle for Florin.
The bench-thin Panthers saw two talented underclass prospects transfer to other schools, and they lost returning All-Metro Conference junior point guard Kynnidi Ricardo to an ACL injury in the second game.
"It's been a roller-coaster season for these girls," said Price, a state parole agent and father figure to his players. "But they have continued to help us make a turnaround in this program that a lot of people didn't think was possible."
Florin won three games in Price's first two seasons.
But when neighborhood kids Conger and Joe-Smith came aboard to build something at the sports-challenged south Sacramento school, they have steadily improved.
Now girls basketball is Florin's showcase sport. The Panthers have won 82 games in four seasons and this year made their first appearance at Sleep Train Arena since the mid-1990s, losing to Metro Conference rival Sacramento in the D-II section final.
"People used to put Florin on the backburner," Conger said. "We've had our ups and downs each year, but we've progressed. Now we move on to (Tuesday). If we can win there, we get to go back to (Sleep Train). That would be big for our school."
Call The Bee's Bill Paterson, (916) 326-5506.