By Zach Cavanagh

With three games remaining in the regular season, San Clemente’s girls basketball team controlled its own destiny.

If the Tritons won their final three games, they would claim third place in the South Coast League and the final playoff spot. If they won two of the three, San Clemente could have faced a one-game playoff against San Juan Hills. Anything less and the Tritons would be in fourth and would have a sub-.500 record, making them ineligible for at-large playoff selection.

So what did San Clemente do? Well, they went out and won.

“I think what we all had in our minds was going into the season thinking we’re a great team and thinking we’re going to win,” sophomore Ella Gardiner said. “We all just had to stop thinking about it and play our game. That’s kind of what we did.”

Gardiner, averaging a double-double this season as the team’s leading scorer, put up three straight double-doubles as the Tritons beat San Juan Hills to vault into third then scored wins against El Toro and second-place Tesoro.

Senior Morgan Thomas posted back-to-back double-digit scoring nights, and senior Shae Waters dropped in 11 points in the Tesoro game, which clinched third place and avoided the one-game playoff.

“We just went in there with no mercy,” Gardiner said about the Tesoro finale, “and we just went in and had it in our heads that we’re going to win this game. We all had in our heads ‘win.’ We didn’t think about losing.”

San Clemente earned its way into the CIF-SS Division 3AA playoffs, and the Tritons will open on the road at Ocean View in Huntington Beach on Feb. 15.

It’s been a bit of a rollercoaster for the Tritons this season. San Clemente had battled numerous injuries this season while grinding through a grueling schedule.

“We had a really tough schedule, which I designed on purpose,” San Clemente coach Kerri Husbands said. “I didn’t anticipate getting as injured as we did. Down the stretch here, we started to get healthy and you could see it in the confidence of the team and how we executed.”

The constant for the Tritons has been Gardiner.

Gardiner, who moved from New Zealand to the U.S. three years ago, has used her 6-foot-1-inch frame and basketball IQ to be an outstanding rebounder and force in the post.

“Her rebounding has been phenomenal,” Husbands said. “It’s a huge part of what we need from her on our team. I have lots of players that can score, but it’s her rebounding that sets her apart.”

Both of Gardiner’s parents played Division 1 basketball at San Jose State, and her father was part of New Zealand’s national team. While not being forced into the sport, her parents helped cultivate her game.

“They definitely helped me become a stronger player through all of their coaching,” Gardiner said, “all the car rides to and from the games. ‘You can get 27 rebounds,’ my dad says every game before I play. That’s in my mind and it helps me focus on my game.”

Rebounds are a strength, and she also enjoys and takes pride in her blocking ability.

Gardiner will be a key as San Clemente looks to extend its do-or-die roll.

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