Kiara Jefferson didn’t even realize it was St. Patrick’s Day until an hour before tipoff.
Good thing she had her green shoes on Saturday night as Jefferson scored a game-high 20 points to lead her West Campus Warriors to the CIF Division III Northern California Regional title with a 59-54 home victory over the Clovis Cougars.
“They are my good luck shoes,” Jefferson said over the sounds of cheers and a student-led rock band raucously playing Led Zeppelin. “It just so happened that it was St. Patrick’s Day.”
Jefferson, a senior guard headed to UCLA next fall, and teammate Nia Johnson (14 points, seven assists), play together on an Amateur Athletic Union team and both were wearing their green shoes Saturday night, not just for luck, but because they’re worn in and comfortable, Jefferson said.
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No luck was needed anyway as the Warriors, who won the Division IV state title last season, led from start to finish and secured a return to Golden 1 Center next weekend to face Sunny Hills High of Fullerton for the CIF State Championship. Sunny Hills beat Mater Dei of Santa Ana Saturday, 53-50.
“Somehow or another those shoes may bring them luck,” Warriors coach John Langston said, his voice hoarse. “Whatever it brings them, I’m okay with it.”
Langston said he didn’t sleep much Friday night into game day, not because he stayed up watching videos of the Cougars but because the nerves got to him. He took them all for his team, who never wilted or waned in dealing with Clovis’ intense zone defense. West Campus led 17-8 after one period and that cushion proved to be pivotal as Clovis tightened on defense and played the Warriors even for the rest of the game.
Several times early in the fourth quarter, Clovis made runs as West Campus’ 3-point attempts clanged off the iron. Sophomore point guard Gabby Rones missed three attempts in a row. But, like most great shooters, she kept stroking threes and her shot came back to her. She finished with 18 points and four 3-pointers.
“I had the support of my team, and I kept saying to myself, ‘You got this,’” Rones said.
Part of Langston’s hoarseness could be credited to him yelling encouragement to his young point guard to keep shooting. Shooting streaks come and go, he and Rones know, and the old, cliched basketball adage always seems to play out: You miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take.
“She’s one of our main players and we trust her,” Langston said. “Whatever shot she takes we’re okay with it. The team is okay with it. So if the team is okay with it, then so are we (coaches). We trust her, we trust her shot and we trust her game.”
Underclassmen playing well for the Warriors is nothing uncommon. Rones led them to the state D-IV title last year as a freshman. And freshman guard Simone Johnson, no relation to Nia, had five points, all in the fourth quarter, and each was vitally important. Her three-pointer with 6:21 remaining stopped a Clovis 5-0 run that brought them to within a basket. Her two all-net free throws gave the Warriors a six-point cushion with just over three minutes left.
“Simone is hard-working and aggressive,” Jefferson said. “When it’s time for her to show up, she’ll show up.”
The Warriors will show up at Golden 1 Center with a wealth of experience. Teams sometimes have difficulty adjusting to the cavernous building when most games are played in 1,000-seat gymnasiums.
The juxtaposition can be jarring. The Warriors tried to prepare for that last season, Jefferson said, by shooting free throws with their eyes closed. She said it didn’t really help, and will likely hear Langston’s booming voice bellowing about that criticism. But Jefferson and Rones both agreed that last year’s state final game a 10-minute drive from home will help keep things in perspective next weekend.
“When I get back to G1C, I’ll go out there and think it’s just another game on a regular court, where there are two baskets and one ball,” Rones said. “All you want to do is play your best, play to your strengths and play as a team.”
Mark Billingsley is a Carmichael-based freelance writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or @editorwriter001.