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Monday, March 10, 2008
Updated: August 25, 4:58 PM ET
Sacred Heart Cathedral keeps beating back challengers

By Glenn Nelson

Tierra Rogers and Chelsea Gray
Tierra Rogers (12 points) and Chelsea Gray (14) battled for the CIF Northern D-III crown.
SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- Every team has a breaking point, a threshold at which the seams will burst and the stuffing will come flying out. To its great credit, through 32 games and counting, Sacred Heart Cathedral has yet to have its threshold exposed. And, for a group that may not be the most classically talented in the country, the fact that they have not yet been broken may be as good a definition as any for being No. 1.

"The character in this room," Sacred Heart coach Brian Harrigan said in the ARCO Arena interview room after his team beat St. Mary's of Stockton to improve its record to 32-0 and claim the California Interscholastic Federation (CIF) Northern Region Division III championship. "Whatever happens the rest of the way, if we don't end up being ranked No. 1, they'll always be No. 1 to me."

Certainly, no elite-level team in the nation has endured as much as the Fightin' Irish of San Francisco. After all, they have had injury added to the insult that was the senseless, halftime murder of Terray Rogers, the father of the team's junior star, Tierra. A few weeks ago, Sacred Heart's bookend 3-point threat, Lauren Bell, a Pepperdine signee, suffered a season-ending ACL tear. Just Thursday, Rogers took a hard spill near the end of Sacred Heart's regional semifinal victory over Sacramento, suffering a right-hip pointer so painful she hobbled out of the gym on crutches.

Only to return two days later to help write the storybook ending to the penultimate game of Sacred Heart's storybook season.

With 10 seconds left, and a regional title, undefeated season and, most likely, a national championship on the line, Sacred Heart trailed St. Mary's 45-44. During a timeout, Harrigan stationed red-hot senior Jazmine Jackson (game-high 17 points) on the right wing, prompting St. Mary's defense to lean that way. He then had shooter Rosslyn Beard run off staggered screens, allowing an all-but-forgotten Rogers to peel wide open into the lane.

After receiving a pass from Ki-shawna Moore, Rogers cranked enough juice out of her creaky hip to go airborne, double pump and score a basket that stood as the game-winner after the Rams' Afure Jemerigbe missed a layup at the buzzer.

"I wasn't 100 percent," said Rogers, who finished with 12 points but was not the usual fireball, particularly on the offensive glass. "I relied on my teammates to help me through."

To which Harrigan commented, "Seventy-five percent of T I'll take over anyone else."

It may not even have to be pointed out to anyone who has followed Sacred Heart all season that the Irish trailed in the fourth quarter by 11 points. St. Mary's is the fourth nationally ranked team Sacred Heart has played this season -- and the fourth it has trailed.

Tom Gonsalves devised a masterful game plan that nearly left his St. Mary's team as one of the nation's only top-ranked unbeaten clubs, along with Murry Bergtraum of New York. On offense, he forced Sacred Heart to respect his free-wheeling, 3-point shooters, parting the lane for the penetrating abilities of his sophomore stars, Jemerigbe (12 points, including a nine-point, third-quarter splurge) and Chelsea Gray (14), and artful third wheel, Allie Moreno (8). Defensively, he didn't pull the trigger on his press, not wanting to gamble against the Irish's quicksilver point guard, Moore, and sat in 2-3 or 3-2 zones that proved effective without Bell to help bust it and Rogers too hurt to clean up the misfires.

"I don't think they are better than we are," Gonsalves said. "I think it showed tonight."

It did, but, then again, it seems to show on many nights against Sacred Heart. There are a lot of teams across the country that believe they can beat the Irish. Fact is, none have.

Ranked No. 1 in the country by Full Court Press and USA Today, Sacred Heart has one more game -- against Magnolia, a six-loss Cinderella from Anaheim, for the state championship next Saturday -- but in everyone's mind, its game against St. Mary's was the title game, the one last test of the Irish's now-storied and storybook resolve.

"We played in a tournament in November (in Beaverton, Ore.) that happened to have three (other) nationally ranked teams," Harrigan said. "It just happened that we beat Poly, which was No. 1 at the time. Then two weeks later, Poly beat a team (Notre Dame Academy of Middleburg, Va.) that was No. 1. So No. 1 fell into our laps. There are (25) teams that are ranked and we've only played three. Are we the No. 1 team in the nation? We can't say that."

But through thick and thin, Sacred Heart simply has acted like it was No. 1. Maybe it's finally time to say that doing so amidst so much adversity is enough to say the Irish indeed are the walk they have walked. With grit and character -- the way we'd love all our No. 1s to be.

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