IRVINE -- There are some divisions in the Southern Section girls' basketball playoffs that ought to be sure things. Brea vs. Long Beach Poly or Mater Dei in Division 1AA, Edison vs. Troy in 1A.
But swing down to Division 3A and it's as wide open as a Montana highway. That was clear Saturday, when third-seeded Bishop Amat scraped out a 40-38 victory over 14th-seeded Irvine.
The Lancers (23-6) are a stalwart of the section playoffs since 1999. But Irvine (15-13) very nearly won its biggest game in a decade. When the final two minutes decided the outcome, Irvine had three players foul out and another leave because of an ankle injury.
Fortunate? Yeah, Bishop Amat was fortunate.
"Somebody said there's no such thing as an ugly playoff win," Bishop Amat coach Richard Wiard said. "They lied. Survive and advance. Survive and advance."
It was an ugly game of survival, all right. Bishop Amat could have dominated, Irvine could have won easily. It could have been anyone's game in a division in which top-seeded Orange Lutheran has lost to second-seeded Bonita which has lost to third-seeded Bishop Amat.
In the end, Irvine's inability to convert its free throws may have been the decisive component. The Vaqueros had only five attempts through the first three quarters, but 10 in the fourth and made only four. They finished six of 15.
Jessica Thawley, a 6-0 junior who led Irvine in scoring this season with 12.9 points, spent the last 6:29 of the first half on the bench with three fouls. Yet Irvine was still in it. Bishop Amat scored the final four points of the half to take a 23-20 lead.
The game got away from Irvine in the third quarter. It missed field goals on its first six possessions, which allowed Bishop Amat to stretch its margin to 30-20 midway through the third. That was a little too much for Irvine, the much taller team that outscored the winners, 18-10, the rest of the way.
A pair of three-point baskets by 6-foot Irvine sophomore Maddy O'Donnell helped trim the lead to four points, but a free throw by Bishop Amat's Leeah Powell made it 40-35 with 2:13 remaining.
Thawley -- whose older sister, Kristen Thawley, was one of Irvine's best-ever players on the 2002 team -- fouled out on a turnaround move under the basket on a shot that would have cut the margin to three points. She couldn't believe she got whistled instead of going to the line for a three-point play attempt; she went to the bench with 1:55 remaining having scored only half her average, six points.
Irvine's Rae Rios missed a pair of free throws with 1:31 to go, but O'Donnell suffered an ankle injury when Bishop Amat's Letty Galarza fell onto her trying for the rebound. O'Donnell, Irvine's second-leading scorer on the season and a 5-foot-11 presence, went to the bench with 11 points.
So much for any height advantage that Irvine had over a Lancers squad that didn't have anyone taller than 5-9.
After Brittany Ballard scored inside to make it 40-37 with 1:20 left, Irvine sophomore point guard Natalie Tran fouled out with 1:09 remaining. Andrea Villanueva, who won the Del Rey League championship for Bishop Amat with a free throw, missed the front end of a one-and-one.
On an in-bounds play, Ballard was open for a three-pointer but was short with 42 seconds on the clock.
With 8.8 seconds to go, Irvine's K'adriana Lancaster was whistled for an offensive foul while her team was in-bounding the ball. Again, Bishop Amat's Villanueva missed the free throw. Less than a second later, on the other end of the court, Rios made one of two free throws to make it 40-38. Rios fouled out with seven seconds to go.
Again, Vianai Austin missed the free throw, but Irvine — with three starters and a key reserve on the bench — was unable to get off a final shot attempt.
Bishop Amat made 11 of 22 free throws. The Lancers got 11 points from Austin, and 10 apiece from Powell and Galarza.
"We were fortunate," said Wiard, who praised the defense of point guard Yamamoto in disrupting Irvine's rhythm. "We made fouls, they missed free throws. That allowed us to keep some separation.
"You give up 38 points, you should win. We were good on defense. [Irvine] played well defensively.
"We got out of here by the skin of our teeth."
If Bishop Amat goes on to win a fifth section title in 13 years it will look back on this game -- and heave a big sigh of relief.