The Del Norte girls’ varsity basketball team saw its magical 2018-19 season come to an end Tuesday evening, as the Warriors fell 75-70 to the Palo Alto Vikings in the opening round of the CIF Northern California State Playoffs in a contest played in front of a packed house at Thunen Gymnasium. The Warriors end their season with a 24-4 record, that includes establishing the program record for wins in a season (the previous mark was 22 wins in 1997-98), along with winning the first Big Five Conference title in program history, their first Dick Niclai Tournament since the 1997-98 season, a runner-up finish in the North Coast Section Division IV playoffs and the program’s first birth in the CIF state tournament.
In front of what was a raucous crowd, the two teams came out as though they were looking to give the packed house a show, as the Vikings began the game on a mini 6-2 run that was quickly answered by the Warriors. The two teams exchanged basket for basket throughout a majority of the opening quarter before the Vikings slowly began to build momentum and a cushion, due in large part to the offensive prowess and marksmanship of sophomore guard Annika Shah, who picked apart the normally stellar Warrior defense for large stretches of the evening, particularly in the opening half. Despite their inability to contain Shah’s outside shooting and dribble penetration, the Warriors were able to convert their own share of quality looks at the basket, keeping the margin within a very manageable 21-17 at the end of the opening quarter.
That margin would begin to increase early in the second quarter, with Shah scoring 22 of her team-high 33 points in the first half alone, while getting plenty of help from backcourt mates Carly Martin and Annie Niethammer, each of whom were readily available for the open looks generated for themselves as the Warrior defense began to focus their attention on attempting to contain Shah. The Vikings extended their lead to as many as 13 in the second quarter, but the Warriors refused to go away quietly, cutting the deficit to single digits at 41-32 heading into the locker room at halftime.
The second half began in much the same fashion as the first two quarters had, with Shah and the Vikings continuing to push the pace and control the tempo of the game at the offensive end, while limiting the Warriors looks at their own offensive end of the floor. The Vikings built their biggest lead of 16 points midway into the third quarter, but, just as they had done throughout the opening half, the Warriors were able to stay afloat and keep themselves in the game with key buckets and key stops at the defensive end of the court.
Trailing 59-48 after three quarters and trading basket for basket and missed opportunity for missed opportunity for a large part of the final quarter, it appeared as though the Vikings had put the contest out of reach, while putting an abrupt end to a historic Warrior season in girls’ basketball program history in the process. However, that was far from the case, as the Warriors seemed to flip a figurative switch out of nowhere, thus beginning a comeback attempt that gave the partisan Thunen Gymnasium crowd that had been waiting for the chance to erupt all evening long, a chance to do exactly that. The combination of senior Kaleya Sanchez on the interior, and timely shooting from sophomore guards Jadence Clifton, Bella Stone and Kirsten Brous, what had been a double digit Vikings lead for a majority of the first three quarters, was all of a sudden being whittled down to virtually nothing.
Following a sequence of 3-point goals from Stone, Clifton and Brous on consecutive possessions, the Warriors had cut the Vikings lead to 68-65 with just 2:05 remaining in the fourth quarter, forcing a Vikings timeout in an attempt to stop the avalanche of momentum that the Warriors, and the Thunen Gymnasium crowd, had built in very short order. That would be as close as the Warriors would ultimately come though, as, Shah was fouled while draining an off the glass 3-point field goal and proceeded to convert the free throw to finish a rare four-point play that ultimately took the wind out of the Warriors sails, as what had been a one-possession game just seconds earlier, was now a 72-65 deficit. Although a 3-point goal from Clifton did cut the Vikings lead to 72-68, Shah and the Vikings iced the game from the free throw line in the closing seconds to secure the victory.
The loss brings a bittersweet end to what was a stellar four-year career in Warrior athletics for Sanchez on the volleyball court and the basketball hardwood. Sanchez ended her high school basketball career with yet another in what has been a consistent pattern of yeoman’s efforts, scoring a game-high 34 points while also establishing herself as a presence on the glass and giving the Warriors multiple extra opportunities at the basket offensively. It wasn’t just Sanchez though, as Clifton poured in 21 points of her own, including five 3-point goals to go along with a perfect 4-of-4 evening from the free throw line. Brous added eight points on two 3-point goals and two free throws, while Stone chipped in with five points.