Coaches get into that mysterious, feel-good sporting region, too. It’s called “The Zone,” and James McKeever doesn’t want to leave it anytime soon.
The Pleasant Grove High School veteran mentor staggered off the Sleep Train Arena floor Saturday afternoon in a sleep-deprived, celebratory stupor, ready for more of the improbable. His 11th-seeded Eagles didn’t just become the lowest-seeded area girls team to win a Northern California Regional Division I basketball championship, they did so by taking down a dynasty, toppling three-time defending champion Berkeley 51-42 for the program’s greatest achievement.
Fourth-seeded Berkeley (24-9) was competing in its record 17th title game, seeking an ongoing record 13th crown. The Eagles (25-9) refused to be bugged by the moment, warding off the Yellowjackets’ pressure defense, quickness, length and tradition in their first title game.
“I am so numb right now,” McKeever said moments after the game. “I don’t want to wake up. This is a dream, and I’m loving it. Being here is great, but winning it is better. And this is a big surprise. We’ve had more talented teams, but this one plays so well together, plays like a team, no ego. Just special.”
McKeever has directed five previous playoff teams in his nine-year tenure at the Elk Grove school, but this was a historic breakthrough as the Eagles’ girls basketball résumé doesn’t even include an appearance in a Sac-Joaquin Section title game.
Pleasant Grove placed second to Oak Ridge in the Delta River League, then lost to Oak Ridge in the section semifinals. The Eagles logged 644 miles in going 4-0 in the NorCal tournament, the first three contests taking them throughout the greater Bay Area in Oakland, Santa Clara and Danville.
“We just found a way,” Pleasant Grove floor leader Brittany Nguyen said. “We found what works.”
What works is the way the Eagles move the ball and make stops. Defense was a catalyst in each NorCal win, and Berkeley was limited to 26 percent shooting.
Nguyen led Pleasant Grove with 14 points, and Aaliyah Pena powered inside for 13 points and 11 rebounds. Kim Schmelz and Patricia Castrence each scored nine points for the Eagles, and they provided ball handling and defense. Three-pointers by Nguyen and Castrence gave the Eagles a 48-39 lead with 1:39 to go, and the upset was on.
“It’s such a great feeling, such a relief,” said Pena, a forward who’s headed to UC Riverside. “We all worked so hard. We deserved it.”
Trailing 18-15 at halftime, McKeever urged the Eagles to up the intensity.
“We played timid and a little afraid,” McKeever said. “And then we got after it.”
Pleasant Grove plays D-I SoCal champion and top seed Canyon Springs of Moreno Valley for the title Friday at Sleep Train Arena. The only area girls team to win a D-I state title is Oak Ridge in 2010 with coach Steve White and standout Sara James, now at Stanford.
Desire Finnie led Berkeley with 16 points and nine rebounds.
Follow Joe Davidson on Twitter @SacBee_JoeD.