It wasn’t pretty but it counted.
After losing key player Julie Hernández in the first quarter and committing a bushel of turnovers that sank them into a 14-point halftime deficit against Los Ángeles Division I champion Palisades High, the McFarland Lady Cougars clawed back for a heart-stopping 68-66 win to claim the CIF Southern Section Division III title.
Their reward: A trip to Golden 1 Arena in Sacramento for a 2 p.m. Friday (March 8) showdown against Northern California champion Oakland High (29-5), a 49-38 winner against Union Mine High Tuesday.
Senior guard Neli Díaz, who passed the 2,000-point scoring mark with 21 points (she holds the school scoring record at 2,003 points), gathered a rebound under the basket and scored the game-winning shot with 2 seconds left in the game.
On the inbounds pass, Palisades (26-9) couldn’t get a shot off.
A packed crowd of about 560 fans in the McFarland gym rushed onto the court to celebrate the victory.
“Relentless!” is how McFarland head coach Johnny Samaniego has described the team all season long. After losing the CIF Central Section title two weeks ago to San Joaquín Memorial, Samaniego predicted his team would repeat the path that rival Sierra Pacific of Hanford did last year in winning a state championship.
McFarland, now 31-5 and winners of 13 of its last 14 games, jumped out to a 6-0 in the opening minutes and never led until senior guard Emily González sank a pair of free throws late in the fourth quarter for a 58-57 lead.
Palisades, which was led by junior forward Jane Nwaba’s 21 points, took advantage of some crucial turnovers by McFarland to tie the game at 62-all, 64-all and 66-all.
McFarland senior center Kathy Rodríguez contributed 20 points after picking up three early fouls and having to sit out a huge portion of the second quarter.
González, who drilled three 3-point shots, made four crucial free throws in the fourth quarter. The left-handed shooter finished with 14 points.
Senior forward Julie Hernández suffered a first-quarter leg injury and was helped off the court. She reappeared at the end of the game with crutches. Her availability for Friday’s game is unknown.
McFarland outscored the taller Palisades team 37-21 in the second half.
This story will be updated.