CHANDLER, Ariz. -- This year, fans don't have to wait until March -- the dream matchup is on Tuesday: No. 1 St. Mary's (Stockton, Calif.) versus No. 2 Mater Dei (Santa Ana, Calif.).
However, neither team was a shoo-in to the Nike Tournament of Champions Joe Smith bracket championship, despite having two stars in their starting rotations.
As California Division II Mater Dei (9-0) watched after pulling out a 56-50 win in the final seconds against No. 5 Long Beach Poly (Long Beach, Calif.), Division III team St. Mary's (7-0) needed an overtime to finally bounce Brea Olinda (Brea, Calif.) 67-66 and earn the other spot in the title match.
"We're just squeaking by," Rams' coach Tom Gonsalves said. "That was quite a comeback."
Without arguably its best player, junior Justine Hartman, on the court, Brea never let St. Mary's build a double-digit lead early, sticking with them in a game that turned into a track meet. In the second half, the Ladycats pulled even and led for a number of minutes, while Chelsea Gray did the best she could to keep her team in it, scoring 17 of St. Mary's 32 second-half points.
"It makes us have more heart and makes us want it more," Gray said. "When we cross adversities, we know what to do."
The talented and senior-laden squad from Stockton kept its composure, going on a 9-1 run in the final 58 seconds to send the game into overtime. Sophomore guard Regina Camera scored her only points of the night on a three with 12 seconds remaining to tie the game at 60. Gray then scored six of the Rams' seven overtime points and made a big block early in the extra period as St. Mary's claimed the win.
Duke-bound Gray led all scorers with 32 points, while three teammates, including California-bound Afure Jemerigbe, add nine. Kelsey Harris, Brea's Iowa State-bound senior guard, led the Ladycats (6-2) with 18 points, including four threes, and sophomore Keitra Wallace scored 17.
"He gets a lot out of his role players with his style, pressing relentlessly and attacking," Brea coach Jeff Sink said. "He doesn't ever want to get into a half-court game and I think that Mater Dei will handle their pressure, because we handled their pressure. If we can, then they can."
That's not to say that Mater Dei's road was any easier against No. 5 Long Beach Poly (9-1) and its triple threat of guards. But after a Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis bucket put the Monarchs up 28-27 in the final minute of the first half, Mater Dei never trailed again.
"She shot the ball well," Poly coach Carl Buggs said. "She shot the ball well with a hand in her face. She's a go-to player. That's what big time players do; they step up. Jordan (Adams) today, too, Jordan shot the ball well."
Adams, the Monarchs' sophomore point guard, scored 14 against the Jackrabbits, while Mosqueda-Lewis, the junior scoring machine headed for Connecticut in 18 months, led all scorers with 23. She scored 16 in the first half, including an eight-point run in the first half of the second quarter.
Mosqueda-Lewis is no doubt the Monarchs' offensive phenom, scoring 25-plus points in all of Mater Dei's TOC victories. Her outputs included a big quarter or run and an knack for making nearly every bucket look effortless. Adams hasn't quite hit her typical output, but a solid effort Monday with 14 almost unnoticed points was the boost Mater Dei needed.
"You have to try to contain them as much as possible," Buggs said. "That was our goal was to contain them as much as possible. We matched up more physical with Kaleena in the second half and it helped."
Poly's shooters struggled against Mater Dei's pressure, rarely getting good looks behind the arc. Junior Sheila Boykin led the Jackrabbits with 10 points, but they all came in the second quarter.
"Mental toughness is usually one of our things we talk about with our team," Mater Dei coach Kevin Kiernan said. "We were really tough tonight against a really physical team. Without Alexyz (Vaioletama), we're not a physical team. ... And we couldn't press and run up and down the court, they're just too quick for that."
The win against a quick, transition-heavy team and a reminder that their stars are there for a reason might just be what the Monarchs needed to prepare for the Rams, as the top-ranked duo of Gray and Jemerigbe face the No. 2 pair, Adams and Mosqueda-Lewis.
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Mindi Rice is an ESPN HoopGurlz staff writer. She previously was an award-winning sportswriter at the Tacoma News Tribune and a barista at Starbucks, and grew up in Seattle, where she attended Roosevelt High School before graduating from the University of Oregon with a degree in journalism. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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