The Rancho Cotate Cougars couldn’t overcome the Montgomery Vikings’ lead, 60-42, Fri. despite a strong comeback in the second half.
The Cougars’ loss in the quarterfinals of the NCS Girls Basketball Division 2 Championship marked the end of the team’s history making season. For the first time in 39 years the Cougars brought home their division pennant, along with securing the honor of the team’s first playoff victory.
Those are a pair of significant honors, and they’re ones the Cougars’ coach, Mario Newton, was honored to share with his team.
“Montgomery is a good team. I’d have rather gone out to a team like Montgomery than Newark Memorial,” Cougar coach, Mario Newton, said. “Oh I’m so proud. I told my girls to look out in the stands and see that we have more fans from Rancho Cotate in these stands than any time in my four years.”
All through this year the Cougars’ strongest weapon was their physicality—their twin demons, Keyonee Neal and Kierra Johnson, dominated the paint through towering height and unmatched aggression. While the Cougars were certainly no slouches elsewhere on the court, their ability to excel in the scrum beneath the basket proved the difference in more than one match.
Yet the Vikings had a pair of demons of their own—Trinity Hawkens and Ashleigh Barr. Between the two of them, they neutralized the Cougars’ core strength and dragged the match into a foul heavy brawl.
“It was a battle on the board, but they really killed it on the free throw line. We couldn’t make free throws and they could,” Newton said. “Games are won and lost along that line.”
The Vikings gained the lead when Cirah Michalik received possession after a missed Cougars’ shot bounced off the rim. She rushed up the side of the court, tiptoeing along the boundary line. Cougars responded in force. As is typical to Rancho’s battle plan, they paired up against Michalik and tried to slow her down while their team repositioned, but Michalik was having none of it. She passed to her teammate, Trinity Hawkens, who waited in the wings. Hawkens swooped in from the side, neatly dancing through the Cougar defenses, and landed a layup. While the scoreboard certainly tilted in the Vikings’ favor, the Cougars weren’t ones to give up. They rallied late in the second quarter when Keyonee Neal intercepted a Viking pass. She plunged towards the basket. Five of the Vikings moved to intercept. They buzzed around Neal like a swarm of angry insects, yet she pushed her way through and leapt, juggling the ball from hand to hand between the Vikings’ probing fingers. The ball bounced off the backboard and sank through the hoop.
Neal wasn’t done. A few moments later as the clock ticked towards the end of the half, she pushed up to midcourt. The audience counted down the remaining seconds. Neal lined up and took the shot. The ball arced smoothly through the air and sank into the basket to the roar of the crowd and the buzz of the clock.
With that, the Cougars shrank the Vikings’ lead to a bare seven points.
“When I saw the clock I knew I was gonna hit the shot,” Neal said. “When it went through the net I was just proud and hyped up. I just wanted my team to feel that hype into the second half.” The rally wasn’t to last, though. The Cougars’ lost their grip in the third quarter and Neal fouled out in the fourth. There were a few bright spots for the Cougars; like when their Teiya Fronda walked passed midfield and landed an unopposed three-pointer, and when Leslie Bejaran scored a layup through significant Viking opposition, an effort which sent her sprawling.
But those moments were fleeting. In the end they were not enough to overcome the Vikings’ lead.
“I’m proud of us because we came a long way. We made history and I’m happy to be a part of that,” Cougar senior, Makenna Menton-Porter, said.
Five of the Cougars are set to graduate this year. For those girls that evening’s game marked not just the end but the end of their high school basketball career. While it’s sad to go out on a loss, they’ll always have the pennant, which now hangs proudly in the Rancho Cotate Gymnasium and will for years to come.