Rebekah Brown felt the pressure, all right, right on down to her soul and into the soles of her shoes.
The Sacramento High School senior guard was awarded three free throws with .4 seconds remaining Friday night in the biggest game of her young life, needing just one to crown her team as Sac-Joaquin Section Division II champion.
She missed her first two attempts, each sandwiched by a timeout. She then rattled in the third, her team staged a last-second stop, and the celebration was on. Second-seeded Sacramento edged top-seeded Antelope 62-61 at Golden 1 Center in a contest pitting The Bee’s top-ranked teams throughout the season.
It was as good as advertised with up-tempo play, frenetic defense, big shots, big misses and a dramatic finish. Brown was all grins later, her heart still pounding.
“I felt it in my heart through my hand,” Brown said of her free throws. “I knew we had worked so hard to get here. I knew I had to make one.”
Brown had five points, but her final one will last a lifetime. Her fiery coach, Michele Massari, rides players relentlessly, imploring them to box out, to make smart passes. A bit of coach love to Brown — positive reinforcement — also did the trick.
“Told her she was a senior, that she could do this,” Massari said. “So proud of her. It takes a lot of nerves to make a shot like that, in a place like this, to calm yourself, to make it.”
This was Sacramento’s sixth section championship in 13 title-game appearances, all since 2005. It’s the first banner haul for the Dragons since they four-peated over two divisions from 2011-14, each under Massari, the demanding boss known to fuss and fume, though she insists she has mellowed.
“Well,” she said in defense with a laugh blowing her cover, “we don’t have practice (on Saturday). So I’ve mellowed.”
Massari allows her team to freelance and have fun on offense as long as it’s within reason and if the defense remains constant. So this means the Dragons zip up court and add a bit extra on passes, sometimes behind the back. They are as fun as they are tenacious and talented.
To put the brakes on this express would be to soften the fire of the Dragons.
“That’s how they play, and they’ve been like that all four years together,” Massari said.
Andriana Avent, a Sacramento senior guard headed to New Mexico on scholarship, led all scorers with 23 points. She had six rebounds. Senior forward Muirae Gomez had 16 points and six rebounds, and team floor leader RyAnne Walters had 11 and seven.
Walters, a four-year starter headed to UC Santa Barbara, leads the Dragons’ fun brigade with passes, shots and a lot of flair.
And Sacramento needed every ounce of effort to hold off a red-hot Antelope team that rolled in at 29-2 and still expects a high seed in the CIF Northern California playoffs next week.
Antelope’s star act is sophomore guard Jzaniya Harriel, a 5-star recruit whose college scholarship suitors include Stanford. Harriel didn’t disappoint, scoring 20 points with 14 rebounds and offering her own ball-handling skills and drives.
She took the loss hard, convinced she did not foul Brown in the closing seconds.