PREP BASKETBALL PLAYOFFS: Immanuel girls on to SoCal D-V semifinals

Eagles overcome slow start to defeat Sage Creek 51-40, head to San Diego Saturday for showdown at top seed Montgomery High

Immanuel High teammates hug Ainsley Jackson (10) after the second of her two steals and baskets gave the Eagles a nine-point lead late in a 51-40 victory over Sage Creek High in a Southern California Division V quarterfinal game on Feb. 29. The freshman guard scored a team-high 12 points, including a pair of 3-point baskets. (Jon Earnest)
Jon Earnest
Published March 1, 2024  • 
11:00 am

REEDLEY – The usual “slow start-strong finish” formula reached new heights for the Immanuel High girls basketball team during its Southern California Division V regional quarterfinal game on Thursday night.

Not even three minutes in, the Central Section Division IV champions found themselves facing a 10-0 deficit against visiting Sage Creek from Carlsbad. But the No. 4 seed Eagles (26-9) narrowed the deficit to four points by the end of the quarter, led by five points at halftime and took the lead for good in the third quarter on their way to a 51-40 victory at Immanuel South Gym.

The win advances Immanuel to a 7 p.m. semifinal matchup Saturday, March 2 in San Diego against top-seeded Montgomery High, which trounced La Mirada 75-41. The San Diego Section D-III champ Aztecs (23-11) are led by sophomore power forward Paula Zumstein, who averaged 18 points per game and poured in 23 in their quarterfinal win.

The Eagles, who have struggled early on in games during their postseason run, gave themselves a big hole to dig out from against the No. 5 seeded Bobcats (20-11). Freshman guard Lila Swisher drained a pair of 3-points baskets and the visitors scored twice inside to jump out to a 10-point lead. But two free throws by freshman guard Ainsley Jackson (team-high 12 points) started the comeback for Immanuel.

Trailing 17-10 early in the second, guard Sid Azua made a 3-point basket to start a 9-0 run that gave the Eagles their first lead. Azua passed to guard Elizabeth Davila for a layup to make it 17-15, Davila fed Ava Schletewitz for a layup to tie the game and freshman guard Jenna Goertzen converted on an up-and-under driving shot to cap the run.

“Down 10-0 out the gate, and the team showed no hesitation, pause or fear,” said head coach Loren LeBeau. “They are special competitors!”

Azua, the senior veteran in a starting unit that includes two freshmen and two sophomores, said the team was ready for a challenge from the taller Bobcats.

“I thought ‘oh my gosh, this is going to be a difficult game’ but I realized we have heart and we’re fast,” said Azua, who also dished off three assists. “We don’t have as much height as them but we’ve got soul, we don’t give up and we go all four quarters.”

A Jackson 3-pointer in the closing seconds of the half gave the Eagles its largest lead, 28-23 at halftime. But Sage Creek responded with a 7-2 run to tie the score at 30. Senior forward Gia Kiesling and 6-foot-2 senior center Harmony Lawson scored on consecutive baskets inside.

Undaunted, Immanuel went back ahead to stay when Azua connected on her second three (she had six points in the quarter), and Jackson added a 3-pointer for a 39-32 lead entering the final eight minute. The Eagles continued to make key defensive stops every time the Bobcats crept within five points.

Jackson finally delivered the knockout blow in the final two minutes, making a pair of steals and baskets. The second gave Immanuel a 49-40 lead with 59 seconds left, and Goertzen added a final basket on a breakaway in the closing seconds.

Goertzen and Nana Moreno supported Jackson and Azua with 11 points apiece, and sophomore Schletewitz scored all six of her points in the first half. Swisher finished with a game-high 13 points while Hannah Keehn scored seven and Lawler six for Sage Creek.

“We just stuck to our game plan as we always do,” Azua said. “We work hard and we’re fast, and that’s what we do.”

Azua also shook off the effects of a jammed right finger in the fourth quarter, and said she’ll be good to go for the semifinal with Montgomery.

“I didn’t know we were gonna get this far, I’m so excited,” she said. “We’ve worked so hard every single day, and it’s going to be fun.”

Jon Earnest