Leslie Bejaran, a junior at Rancho Cotate High School, fights for the ball during the girls’ basketball game against Newark Memorial High school Tues., Feb. 12 at Rancho. Rancho defeated Newark 62-48 and for the first time in the school’s history, the Lady Cougars won a NCS playoff game and will move on to play in the quarterfinals Fri., Feb. 15 at 7 p.m. against Montgomery High School. The teams will play at Montgomery and fight for a win so they can move into the semifinals. Photo by Jane Peleti
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Height lent the Rancho Cotate Cougars the advantage in their victory Tues. night over the Newark Memorial Cougars, 62-48, at their playoff game held at Rancho Cotate High School.
In a nutshell it all came down to physicality. Skill and proficiency certainly factored in, but at the end of the day basketball is a numbers game; the team that takes the most shots will most likely pull in the most points. Rebounds are the key. Every rebound means another shot and there’s no better advantage when it comes to getting the rebound than a couple of extra inches.
Which is exactly what Rancho Cotate had over Newark Memorial. Two of Rancho’s players, Kierra Johnson and Katie Shiebold, stand over six feet tall, whereas Newark’s tallest tops out at five feet, ten inches.
Rancho’s coach, Mario Newton, was perfectly aware of his team’s advantage. It played central to his strategy.
“We are blessed with some height,” Newton said. “I wanted to take advantage of our height. We want to try and get as many one, two, or three shot opportunities that we can. When the ball goes up we hit the courts hard.”
The game began slow. Newark ran a two-woman press, which means they left two players on Rancho’s side of the court each time the ball changed possession. It placed no small amount of pressure on Rancho’s offense and it took them well into the first quarter before they managed to formulate a response.
But a press only works when one team is faster than the other. It can leave gaps in a defensive pattern that an offensive lineup can slip through, which is exactly what happened when Newark attempted to press Rancho’s Leslie Bejaran.
Bejaran got possession after Newark let the ball fall out of bounds. Two of Newark’s defenders harassed Bejaran as she moved up the court. She kept cool, though, and tossed the ball over their heads to Rancho’s Makenna Menton-Porter. Porter caught the ball at the half court mark, which put the two Newark defenders behind her. Three remained under the basket.
Porter charged. She muscled through a gap in Newark’s defensive pattern and went for a layup. There was nothing Newark could do. The ball bounced off the backboard and fell into the basket. “We need to learn to do a more consistent job of boxing out the bigger kids,” Darryl Reina, Newark’s coach, said. “I don’t know how many points on the paint they had, but that’s what killed us: shots in the paint and drives we just couldn’t stop.”
Rancho Cotate might have dominated the paint but did so at the cost of the three-point line. Newark realized quickly that they couldn’t compete in brute physicality with Rancho Cotate—so they got smart.
Newark’s Rylee Sarasua gained possession in the second half after a Rancho basket and if there’s one defining trait to Sarasua’s playstyle it’s that she’s patient. She’ll take the entire shot clock if she has to. It’s all for a purpose, though, and she spent a good 25 seconds dribbling the ball at half court, just out of reach.
The play worked. In that instant a pair of Rancho defenders abandoned their position to pressure Sarasua, she passed to her teammate, Jasmin Magpoc. Magpoc, now uncovered, leisurely sank a three-point shot, pulling Newark within just a couple points of Rancho’s lead at the close of the third quarter.
Yet three-point shots don’t win games. They’re too inconsistent. Eventually a team will miss and if they can’t follow up then they start to crumble. Which is exactly what happened to Newark in the fourth quarter.
Rancho began to pull ahead and then Kierra Johnson caught a rebound after a missed Newark three-point attempt. She easily shook the two defenders Newark left behind to guard her and went for the basket, dodging between outstretched hands. The ball left her fingers and fell through the net.
She kept going. In the next 20 seconds Johnson scored another three baskets. Her offensive proved too much and Newark closed out the game 16 points behind.
Rancho Cotate’s triumph over Newark marks the team’s first playoff victory in living memory. In 2017 and 2018 Rancho qualified for the playoffs, but they always fell short, never advancing past the first round.
This year is different, according to Johnson.
“I felt pretty happy that my team this year got to do it—to make it all the way to the playoffs,” Johnson said. “Our chemistry is better. We all vibe together. We play as a team and talk and communicate.”