BASKETBALL PLAYOFFS: Immanuel girls power way into D-IV title game

Eagles’ defense sets tone and offense follows in 49-18 rout of Santa Maria, will play No. 13 Mendota in finals at 2 p.m. Feb. 23 in Selland Arena

Immanuel High’s Sid Azua bats after a loose ball as she cuts between Santa Maria High’s Alexi Juarez (22) and Brianna Hill (24) during the second half of the Eagles’ 49-18 victory over the Saints in a Central Section Division IV basketball semifinal on Feb. 21 at Immanuel High gym. The senior guard scored 10 points. (Jon Earnest)
Immanuel High’s Sid Azua bats after a loose ball as she cuts between Santa Maria High’s Alexi Juarez (22) and Brianna Hill (24) during the second half of the Eagles’ 49-18 victory over the Saints in a Central Section Division IV basketball semifinal on Feb. 21 at Immanuel High gym. The senior guard scored 10 points. (Jon Earnest)
Jon Earnest
Published February 23, 2024  • 
11:00 am

REEDLEY – A young Immanuel High girls basketball squad combined its usual frenzied defensive effort with a more efficient offensive performance Wednesday night, and the payoff was a big one — a berth in the Central Section Division II championship game.

The number two seed Eagles (23-9) applied their usual full court pressure to force early turnovers and a game-long poor shooting night from visiting Santa Maria High, and the offense clicked early to fuel a dominating 49-18 rout of the No. 3 Saints (16-15) at Immanuel South Gym.

That sets up a 2 p.m. final Friday, Feb. 23 at Selland Arena in Fresno against No. 13 seed Mendota (25-7) which posted its third straight road victory with a 47-27 trouncing of No. 9 Arvin High. The Aztecs earlier dispatched No. 4 Torres High and No. 5 Templeton. 

“They’ve got to be thinking they’re a team of destiny, they’re a dangerous team,” said Immanuel head coach Loren LeBeau. “We played them once before very early in the season (a 38-31 Eagles victory on Dec. 1). That coach (Jose Reyes) does a very good job, and we’ve only got 24 hours to prepare.”

The Eagles trailed just once, 2-1, but took the lead for good with good early free throw shooting. Senior guard Sid Azua and sophomore guard-forward Nana Moreno each connected on a pair of foul shots, and Azua took a feed from sophomore forward Ava Schletewitz and drained a baseline 3-pointer for an 8-2 lead.

Although Santa Maria broke Immanuel’s press with long passes, the Saints couldn’t convert it into baskets as they put up wild and off-balance shots. Moreno scored on a shot off glass, Azua hit two more foul shots and Schletewitz added a free throw for a 12-2 advantage after one quarter.

Santa Maria crept within nine points on a 3-pointer by Brianna Vasquez less than five minutes before halftime. Missed shots were converted into Immanuel scores, and the Eagles closed with a 7-0 run capped by a crisp feed from Azua to freshman guard Ainsley Jackson for a 3-pointer from the left wing in the closing seconds.

The Saints never were able to respond from the 24-8 hole, as Immanuel continued the defensive pressure and made an 11-1 run to open the third quarter. Despite committing 22 turnovers of their own, the Eagles’ press kept Santa Maria’s offense out of sync with erratic shooting after the Saints passed half court. Immanuel also had a big advantage at the free throw line, sinking 17 of 32 to just five of 10.

LeBeau said the full court press did its job, causing 17 turnovers by the visitors but more importantly affecting their shooting.

“That’s what pressure does, it really tries to disrupt not only what you are comfortable doing, but it also messes with you mentally because it’s relentless,” he said. “That’s our (philosophy) and what we try to do, we try to break you mentally and physically.”

Azua and Jackson led the scoring with 10 points apiece while Moreno and Schletewitz each added eight points. Jenna Goertzen had six points while Liz Davila added four points. Senior Macie Riddle scored two points filling in minutes for sophomore Clara Riddle, who sat out the game because of illness.

Vasquez scored eight points to lead Santa Maria, which had three players foul out and were whistled for a pair of technical fouls.

LeBeau said the team is embracing the opportunity to play for a section championship.

“We’ve worked really hard to get here, and we’re already starting to feel the moment,” he said. “I can tell with our girls it’s new to be here, but I know they’re super excited. The Immanuel community is excited. I do know that we’re going to come out and play hard.”

Jon Earnest
Reporter