Jessica Kunisaki pounced on the question.
“How do you like your team?”
The McClatchy High School girls basketball coach beamed, and explained her fondness for the gritty players that make up the team that has been top-ranked by The Bee since the start of the season.
The Lions put together a masterful effort in bouncing defending Northern California Division I champion Pleasant Grove with a thorough 70-54 effort Thursday night in a Sac-Joaquin Section Division I quarterfinal in the Lions’ venerable gym.
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“I just love this team,” Kunisaki said. “They give us everything. They play so hard. They’re respectful, and they work.”
The Lions (21-6) attack foes in waves as 11 players regularly see the floor. It’s a complete outfit with a star in the middle in junior forward/center Gigi Garcia, who at 6-foot-1 gracefully runs the floor, makes passes, scores inside, hits jumpers and defends. She had 15 points and 12 rebounds.
The outside threat comes from Jordan Cruz, who hits three-pointers, crashes the boards and makes steals. She had 17 points.
The interior force is Destiny Lee, the UNLV-bound center who missed much of the season because of a stress fracture in her foot but is quickly rounding into form. She had eight points and 11 rebounds.
Alex Washington, Sara Shimizu, Lauren Nubla, Kelsey and Kristi Wong, Kamaree Donald, Haley Arakaki and Jada Fonseca all made contributions, be it handling the ball or diving on the floor for one. If one player best defines the tenacity of this group, it’s Kelsey Wong, a dart at 5-foot with quick hands as the lead defensive guard assigned to pester the opposing point guard.
The junior’s relentless play belies her shy grins and manners off the floor.
“She’s like a little gnat,” Garcia said, eyeing her teammate. “She’s so tough.”
Wong embraces the role of pest.
“It comes with a lot of responsibility, to defend the other point guard,” Wong said. “I have to slow her down, but having my teammates definitely helps. And Gigi makes everyone’s job so much easier.”
Kunisaki demands effort in the same way her coach at McClatchy last decade did. Harvey Tahara directed McClatchy to championship success over the years – his name and that of his wife, Janice, are on the gym floor – and he was pleased that one of his players succeeded him following the 2010-11 season.
The storied gymnasium opened in 1937 and underwent a remodel this fall. It sparkles while still holding onto its old charm. It was full Thursday, including a spirited student rooting section.
McClatchy plays Bee No. 2 Oak Ridge on Tuesday at Pacific, the winner likely drawing top-seeded and nationally ranked St. Mary’s of Stockton in the final.
Seniors Samantha Huddleston had 18 points and Kim Schmelz 16 for Pleasant Grove (22-7). Both embraced coach James McKeever, who relied on both through the title march a year ago.