SACRAMENTO, Calif. —
Down early in the fourth quarter, with the state championship in the balance, Sacred Heart Cathedral Preparatory (San Francisco)
coach LyRyan Russell had simple messages to his squad.
Don't panic. Stay calm. Play with urgency.
He didn't have to say the obvious: Feed IImar'I Thomas
The 6-foot-1 junior, who has largely carried the Irish offensively, had one of the best Division III games in state finals history with 30 points, 15 points and many of the key plays down the stretch in an exciting 50-47 victory over a gritty Lakeside (Lake Elsinore)
squad Thursday at Sleep Train Arena.
Thomas was coming off a 25-point, 23-rebound performance in the regional final.
"We've come up short the last couple of years, but today I was going to do whatever I needed to do to help us win," Thomas said. "We were going to finish this thing as a team. That's what we did."
It was the fifth state title for the Irish (21-9), but first since 2008 and first with Russell at the helm. SHC trailed by four midway through the fourth, but locked down on defense, forced six turnovers in the quarter when Thomas scored 12.
It helped offset a gallant from Lakeside (29-6), which got 13 points and 14 rebounds from 6-4 post Emma Merriweather
and 12 points by Triann Thompson
"We have a deep team and we were hoping to wear them down in the fourth quarter," Russell said. "We just kept sending waves of players at them. They finally cracked."
The key play came when tied at 43 when Thomas made a steal in the backcourt, fed Rainah Smith
who quickly found Edina Del Rosario
for a deuce, making it 45-43 and 2:50 left. The Irish would never trail from there.
Thomas made sure of that with a soft jumper and two free throws down the stretch to secure a title for a team with nine sophomores and two juniors. Russell wasn't surprised with the title despite SHC's youth. "We come from a school with a strong tradition," Russell said. "We're battled-tested. The kids are gym rats. They're special kids. This was no fluke."
Lakeside was special as well. It won four regional games on the road to get to the state finals. The Lancers also got 11 points from Marissa Williams
and nine points and nine rebounds Mya Victor
. They gave the Irish every thing they could handle.
"We missed some easy opportunities and free throws down the stretch," Lakeside coach Anthony Williams. "We matched their intensity most of the way but couldn't finish it off.
"But the girls have nothing to hang their head about. We did most of the things we were aiming to do in the game. I thought we did a very good job defensively. We just didn't make the plays late."
Williams said these Lancers helped create a great winning atmosphere at school.
"They helped with a great since of pride for our school," he said. "These kids bleed green and gold."