Playing in a facility the size of the arena would be daunting to about anyone. It's certainly different from playing in the Monte Vista High School gym. And playing against the three-time defending state champs for Interscholastic Federation Division I would give one pause, especially when you consider that its lineup consists of girls who are 6 feet 4 inches, 6 feet 2, and 6 feet 1.
But if the Lady Mustangs were in any way daunted by the size of the stadium or their opponents on Saturday it certainly didn't show in the way they played. Coming in off their Northern California Sectional win, the MVHS basketball team dug in and played with a feral intensity.
Coach Ron Hirschman instructed his team to maintain its zone defense against the Jackrabbits, closing down the middle and forcing the Long Beach team to shoot from the outside. This strategy limited the opponent's scoring and allowed the quicker Monte Vista players to snag rebounds and start the ball back upcourt.
Team standout Niveen Rasheed had the unenviable task of moving the ball toward their basket against a very aggressive and determined full court press put on by the Jackrabbits. Pitting speed against speed, Rasheed executed phenomenal dribbling skills in foxing her way around opponents in order to pass the ball off to waiting teammates.
The solid zone defense coupled with the quick upcourt movement took the Long Beach team by surprise and allowed Monte Vista to jump out to a quick lead. By the end of the first quarter the score stood 8-6 in favor of MVHS.
The second quarter followed suit, but problems began to emerge as fouls were called against the Mustangs, allowing the Jackrabbits to notch more points. Rasheed racked up two fouls by midway through the second quarter and Coach Hirschman began to substitute her out more frequently in order to keep her from drawing further fouls.
However with only nine seconds left in the half and sensing a chance to get one more basket before the buzzer he substituted her back in for one last drive. Tragedy struck when the play ended with yet another foul levied against Rasheed. Going into the half the Mustangs were down 19-17.
In the second half, Monte Vista was forced to play a more defensive game, cycling Rasheed in and out to preserve her primarily for offense. With only two fouls left before she would be out of the game, Hirschman couldn't afford to let his key player stay in the game.
At the same time, the Jackrabbits emerged from the half energized and hungry, piling on the pressure and forcing the Mustangs to fight for every inch. The tactic forced risky shots and caused more frequent turnovers, which allowed the Long Beach team to steal away with the game. Even a pair of 3-pointers fired in from the outside by Dani Rabago were not enough to stop the hemorrhaging as the Jackrabbits gained momentum. By the end of the third quarter the score stood at 37-25.
Hirschman was forced to keep Rasheed in for longer periods of time, trying to build up momentum of his own. To some degree it worked as the Jackrabbits were slowed for a time, but with three minutes left in the game she picked up her fifth and final foul. Obviously upset, she stepped off the court for the final time having accounted for 16 points. Tired but determined, the team pushed for a run they hoped would offset the huge point deficit.
Unfortunately, the Long Beach team was on a roll and continued to force turnovers and make baskets so that when the final buzzer sounded the score was 57-33.
After the game, Hirschman congratulated the Long Beach squad for its victory, but said he was very proud of the effort put forth by his team.
"That is a great team we played tonight, but I think you saw tonight what our kids are made of. I'm so proud of these 12 individuals. They showed tonight that they can play with any team out there," he stated.
Hirschman said that the first half went exactly according to the gameplan with one exception: "I had us up by 20," he joked. Then he added, "We played them to a standstill and we were still down by 2. That's the kind of team Poly has."
The coach said he felt the game could have been different if he hadn't put Rasheed back in for that critical nine seconds where she got her third foul.
"It changed the whole aspect of the game. We had to protect her as much as we could. It meant we had to play more defensively than offensively."
Rasheed said having to regulate her play made it harder for her to be effective on the floor.
"I had to get in, get a point, then get out again. I didn't get momentum," she explained.
The Princeton-bound senior said that even though her team lost she was glad they made it all the way to the CIF finals.
"We didn't want the season to end," she said. "As a senior it's a great way to end your season ... at the state championship."
While the Division I championship was the culmination of the season, Hirschman said his team has just had a phenomenal year in general.
"These kids are a true team. That's one of the reasons they got this far. They have a friendship, a unity that's there both on the floor and off," he said.
The Lady Mustangs had a 29-3 season and Hirschman said there was one game in particular that showed him just how much potential they had.
"It was the first time we played Carondelet and we beat them," he stated. "They brought their 'A game' every night."
One of the most high pressure games came for the team when they were 23-2 and starting the North Coast Section playoffs.
"We were having such a strong season. If we went out there and laid an egg and lost in those two games, that would have been it for us," he said.
The end of the season also means a significant shift in the status quo for the Lady Mustangs as four of the team's starters graduate this year and move on.
"Every year you always lose something special. You don't just replace these four kids. You don't replace Niveen Rasheed," he said.
"But we will just keep putting the best team out that we can," he added. "These kids have a great work ethic, they enjoy what they do, and we'll just see where that takes us next year."