They took some hits, absorbed more losses than usual this season, but these are still the St. Mary’s Rams.
Which is to say, formidable and fierce. McClatchy High School can attest to this.
St. Mary’s remains the Sac-Joaquin Section’s preeminent powerhouse girls basketball program, until further notice, because it does things most teams this age simply cannot do.
Utilizing skill, length, shooting, defense and just sheer tenacity, the Rams of Stockton overwhelmed No. 2-seeded McClatchy 51-37 in a Division I semifinal in the Lions’ storied gym Tuesday night. An overflow crowd in a cramped and cozy gym out of Hoosiers, built in 1937, witnessed the St. Mary’s trademark tendencies that has made for a state juggernaut.
The third-seeded Rams (21-8) drew six charges, got McClatchy’s two best players into early foul trouble and pulled away with 3-point shooting and pressure defense to land into Saturday’s championship at Golden 1 Center against Bear Creek of Stockton.
It’s just the second time since 1992 that a Sacramento-area team will not compete in the D-I final, and the first since 2005. St. Mary’s seeks its 12th consecutive section banner and seventh in succession in D-I.
But if there was a season in which the program’s remarkable 12-year, 46-game section playoff winning streak was in peril, it seemed to be this one. Injuries stalled the Rams, and a brutal national schedule added to the growing pains for a team that includes five freshmen who have to live up to the enormous reputation of excellence the program has crafted.
But coach Tom Gonsalves is still around, in his 18th season, and the Rams still hustle and compete from wire to wire, including remaining composed in a frenzied atmosphere that included McClatchy’s Legion of Lions rooting section. It was a win-win night for girls basketball in that regard.
“It was an awesome crowd,” Gonsalves said. “It was really impressive. I told the girls before the game that this is what we play for, moments like this.”
St. Mary’s is coming into its own with injured players now back in the mix. Amaya Oliver scored 17 points and had 13 rebounds for the Rams. The 6-foot-2 junior forward missed 18 months of action due to a knee injury, but one could hardly tell with how she worked the inside and the boards.
Guards Anissa Cayton and Jada Moss also played well for St. Mary’s, be it ball handling, defense or composure.
Imani Felix, a sophomore guard, scored 10 to lead McClatchy (26-4), which will still advance to the CIF Northern California playoffs that start next week as an at-large. The Lions will likely be a high seed in Division I, perhaps top two, as the prestigious Open Division will surely include St. Mary’s, Bear Creek, Antelope, Sacramento and others.
McClatchy’s two senior cornerstones - Kamryn Hall and Nia Lowery - were slowed Tuesday by foul trouble. Hall fouled out with 40 seconds to go in the third quarter, finishing with six points, and Lowery was out with five fouls with 4 minutes to go in the fourth. She had five points.
McClatchy competed, as it always does since rising to power a decade ago, but the Lions had shots rim out, curl out or miss short.
“We couldn’t hit the ocean,” McClatchy coach Jeff Ota said. “I credit St. Mary’s and its length and athleticism. And we got in foul trouble, too.”
Ota hopes his student rooting section attends home NorCal games. Gonsalves would appreciate any St. Mary’s students showing up at Golden 1.
For years, the Rams have trotted out entertaining national powers at big venues, including Arco Arena, only to compete in front of a handful of students.
“It’s an embarrassment,” Gonsalves said. “Our kids deserve more. We don’t get cheerleaders to come to our games. We get a few longtime loyal fans from the community, but students? Zero. They’re missing out.”
Sac-Joaquin Section semifinals