They lost senior forward Julie Hernández to an ankle injury in the first quarter.
Then senior center Kathy Rodríguez went to the bench with three fouls with two minutes left in the second quarter.
By halftime, the McFarland High girls basketball team was staring at a 14-point deficit against visiting Pacific Palisades High on March 5 with the CIF Southern Section Division III championship on the line.
What they didn’t lose was their composure.
“Look, we’ve been here before,” McFarland head coach Johnny Samaniego told his team at halftime. Let’s show everybody what that poster (a team photo with the word ‘Relentless’ on it) is all about.”
McFarland won all four playoff games at home, where it has gone 10-0 this season. Palisades, the Los Ángeles City Division I champion, saw its 10-game winning streak snapped.
The Lady Cougars lived up to the relentless tag, chomping away at a deficit that reached 15 points in the third quarter, tying the game up at 56-all with seven minutes left in the game by going on an 8-0 run that was capped by a 2-point shot by senior guard Neli Díaz.
Senior guard Emily González – a lefty who sank three, three-point shots in the first half – put McFarland ahead at 58-56 with a pair of free throws.
Neither team led by more than two points after that, and the game was tied six times until Díaz gathered an offensive rebound and made a short jumper with two seconds left for the eventual 68-66 victory.
“We actually lost the ball and Angie (González) and Kathy (Rodríguez) ended up saving the ball; I just put it up,” said Díaz, who scored a team-high 21 points. “It was pure luck. Natural reaction. I didn’t even know there were two seconds left.”
Díaz, McFarland’s all-time leading scorer, surpassed the 2,000-point mark and now has 2,003 points in her career.
“It feels amazing! Basketball has never experienced this in McFarland. It’s just astonishing how much we have accomplished over whole course of the season,” said Díaz, whose team is 31-5 heading into a 2 p.m. Friday (March 8) game against Oakland High (29-5) for the CIF Division III championship.
Díaz expressed some concern when Julie Hernández went down with an ankle injury in the opening quarter.
“We said, ‘Dang it, somebody has to step up. I mean, luckily, all of our players stepped up,” said Díaz. “It took everything we got to come back. We had more hart, I feel.”
About her career scoring mark, Díaz credited her teammates.
“It’s a pretty good feeling and a pretty good accomplishment, but without my teammates passing me the ball, without them believing in me, without their trust I would never have had any of these points,” she said.
Kathy Rodríguez finished with 20 points and, like Díaz, finished the game with four fouls.
She grabbed the rebound off Díaz’ final-second miss and put up a ball that flirted with the rim before bouncing out. That’s when Díaz grabbed the rebound and scored.
“We go to feel what every team has wanted. We want to win state so bad. I’m speechless for that,” said Rodríguez, who blamed herself for getting into foul trouble.
“That was on my part. In the second half, I told myself I can’t be doing anything dumb.”
Rodríguez said the team never worried about falling behind by so much.
“As long as we don’t lose our passion and thrive to finish, we’re OK as a team,” she said.
Samaniego – part of McFarland’s cross country teams that won nine state championships that inspired the movie ‘McFarland, USA’ – never gave up on his team.
“Give it up. Palisades is a great team, with a great coach and well-disciplined,” said Samaniego. “Their girls played their heart out. I tell you, if we played at their home court, we would have lost.”
González, who kept the deficit manageable with three three-point shots in the first half, said her teammates left their heart on the floor.
“This team was amazing. They put up a good game,” said González, who also runs on the cross country team.
McFarland got pumped up with a crowd of about 560 that packed the gym.
At halftime with a 45-31 deficit, Samaniego brought Hernández into the locker room in crutches.
“Julie has left her heart on the floor,” he told the players. “One of you has to grab it off the floor, transplant it in yourself and come be Julie. They came around.”
“When God is the author of your story, your book, you just sit back and go along for the ride.”