The last time she faced this team, Jordan Cruz couldn’t shoot straight, and nothing galls a bomber more than efforts that go long, rim out or miss entirely.
The McClatchy High School sophomore guard was a frustrating 0 for 11, though her hustle helped the Lions beat Oak Ridge in a Sac-Joaquin Section Division I semifinal on March 3 at Pacific.
And the rematch Saturday afternoon in a spacious venue that can be equal parts exciting and unnerving? Much more satisfying, with a championship undertone and a punctuating sigh of relief.
Cruz swished four three-pointers and made key free throws down the stretch in scoring 19 points to help top-seeded McClatchy beat No. 2 Oak Ridge 58-49 for the CIF Northern California D-I championship at Sleep Train Arena in a battle of The Bee’s top-ranked teams.
The Lions received typical across-the-board contributions, with eight players scoring, and the Lions pitching a shutout the final 3:20 of the game. McClatchy (26-7) earned its first such title and will play Serra of Gardena in the CIF State finals at 6 p.m. Friday at Cal’s Haas Pavilion.
It was a milestone moment for McClatchy, the storied Sacramento Unified School District program known for decades for its academic and athletic achievements. The Lions coach – Jessica Kunisaki – is an alumnus who is a college and career counselor on campus. She is in her fourth season as head coach. Kunisaki replaced the famed Harvey Tahara, a section Hall of Fame coach who urged her to take the job. He was her prep coach and coaching mentor.
“Very proud of this team,” Kunisaki said. “It wasn’t our best offensive game, but it came down to heart.”
If one thing best defines these Lions, it’s heart. The guards are small, yet skilled, quick on the dribble and absolute pests on defense. The bigs are tough inside and capable passers in Gigi Garcia and Destiny Lee.
And there are shooters to provide spacing and balance, such as Cruz.
“Today,” Cruz said with a shy smile, “was a more exciting day. Looking up at the scoreboard at one point, I knew we had it.”
As for her shot, Cruz never stopped doing what any shooter does in a slump – she kept shooting.
“I just fixed it a little,” Cruz said of her shot, “and I never ran out of confidence.”
Garcia, a 6-foot-2 forward with an expanding skill set, overcame first-half foul trouble to score 15 points to go with 10 rebounds. She also excelled the first time the programs met, a 56-40 victory at Pacific.
Guards Lauren Nubla, Sara Shimizu, Alex Washington and sisters Kelsey and Kristi Wong provided waves of defensive pressure for McClatchy, which had just eight turnovers. Oak Ridge had 30 turnovers. Yumi Drossos led Oak Ridge (27-5) with 12 points, and Shelby Peters and Isamar Conde had 11 and 10 points, respectively.
“Too many turnovers,” longtime Oak Ridge coach Steve White said. “This team has been a pleasure to coach. We don’t have stars. It’s a collective effort.”
White praised McClatchy, calling the Lions, “a complete team.”
“We knew they could hit threes, and they can score inside, so it’s pick your poison with them,” he said.
Further proof of a concerted team effort: McClatchy athletic director Rob Feickert made breakfast burritos for the team. He received high marks for culinary excellence. And Tahara? He watched the game with family, standing and cheering.
Now, it’s one more game to go: the hardest one.
“I can speak for all of us,” Garcia said. “We’re super excited, and we’re ready.”