SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO – It was a cool winter night, but the gym was hot at San Juan Hills High School on Thursday, Feb. 2.
With the South Coast League championship on the line, San Juan Hills and San Clemente locked horns with physical defensive presses and huge second-half runs to trade the lead back-and-forth into the final minutes. When push came to shove, it was the Stallions’ career star that shot for redemption and put the home team over the top.
San Juan Hills senior Amanda Edwards came off a screen to knock down the go-ahead 3-pointer with just under two minutes to play and nailed her free throws in the final seconds for a game-high 18 points, as the Stallions beat rival San Clemente, 49-45, to secure back-to-back South Coast League titles.
“It wasn’t pretty,” San Juan Hills coach Paul Edwards said with a laugh. “That’s not going to go in the basketball clinic, but I’m proud of them. I told them after we lost two weeks ago (at San Clemente), I said this one is going to mean more than last year. You’re going to have to dig your way out. You’ve got to work now… I think this is really going to help us going forward.”
This is the fifth league championship in program history for San Juan Hills (23-5, 7-1) and its second in the South Coast League. San Clemente (21-7, 6-2) had the edge over the Stallions for the league with their own fourth-quarter surge against San Juan Hills on Jan. 21, but the Tritons stumbled at Aliso Niguel to set up the winner-take-all game on Thursday.
“Physical game. Both teams I thought played their hearts out,” San Clemente coach Kerri Husbands said. “That’s all you can ask. I think both teams play really good defense. Both teams are physical defenders and really get after it. That’s fun. That’s a fun game.”
This was also a monumental game for CIF-SS playoff seedings, with San Clemente ranked No. 3 in CIF-SS Division 2AA and San Juan Hills ranked No. 4 in Division 2AA. The CIF-SS playoff brackets will be released on Sunday, Feb. 5, with the first round on Thursday, Feb. 9.
“We’ve stressed with them every one of the last four games is a playoff game (to win league),” Coach Edwards said. “We’ve got an experienced team. We’ve got six seniors. We’ve got girls who have played a lot of basketball, so I hope going forward this is going to catapult us. We’ve been there. Now, we’ve got to make it happen on the court.”
After a hot opening quarter on Thursday in which Amanda Edwards knocked down three 3-pointers for an 18-12 San Juan Hills lead, the offense dried up for San Juan Hills. While the Stallions managed to hold a four-point lead at halftime, San Juan Hills did not make a single field goal in the second quarter and made just one field goal to open the third quarter.
That provided an opening for San Clemente, as the Tritons ignited for a 17-1 run into the fourth quarter with two 3-pointers from Zona Miller, who led San Clemente with 17 points.
Then, in an instant, the game quickly flipped back the other direction, as San Juan Hills turned up its full-court press.
The Stallions lit up for their own 13-0 run, including another 3-pointer from Edwards to take the lead, 38-36, less than two minutes into the quarter.
“We just came out with energy,” Edwards said. We knew, league championship on the line. We weren’t going to let that go to waste. We just came together as a team, and we battled.”
Edwards had particular motivation to make her mark against San Clemente after fouling out in the third quarter of the previous meeting, which opened the door for that Tritons comeback. Edwards, who set the school record for points (36) and 3-pointers (nine) in a game on Jan. 25 and crossed the 1,000-point career mark back in December, made it to the end on Thursday.
While San Juan Hills had gone back in front, the game was far from over.
San Clemente tied the game on a 3-pointer from Kyle Franklin and took the lead with just over two minutes remaining on a 3-poitner from Claire Pham.
Coming out of a San Juan Hills time out, Edwards got her chance to put San Juan Hills ahead for good and came off a screen to knock down her fifth 3-pointer of the game.
On the ensuing inbounds play, the Stallions forced the turnover and Anna Shreeve put home the lay-up for a four-point lead with 1:23 to play. Shreeve notched a double-double with 14 points and 12 rebounds.
Neither team found their free-throw stroke down the stretch, and Sienna Taus drove to the basket and pulled San Clemente within two points with under 20 seconds left.
Edwards walked to the line with nine seconds remaining to sink two free throws, put San Juan Hills up by four points and officially claim the South Coast League crown.
Both teams now march into the CIF-SS playoffs, and both have plenty to prove when the playoffs open on Thursday, Feb. 9.
Last season, San Juan Hills suffered a first-round upset at home in overtime in the Division 2A playoffs, and San Clemente lost by 17 points on the road in the first round of the Division 1 playoffs.