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Defense leads Coyotes to title

Wendy Alexander/The Madera Tribune

Brianna Rubalcaba, right, and Maria Hernandez embrace while the rest of the Madera Coyotes celebrate winning the Div. III Valley Championship on Saturday at Selland Arena.


FRESNO — In the lowest scoring basketball championship game in the Selland Arena-era, the Madera Coyote girls basketball team held tough for a 27-26 victory over the Sanger Apaches to win the Div. III Valley Championship.

The Coyotes shot just 24 percent from the field, but the Apaches were even worse, shooting 14 percent. The victory over the Apaches was Madera’s third this season and gave Madera its second Valley Championship (2003) in school history.

The Coyotes took their lead late into the fourth quarter, but two potentially costly turnovers under the Sanger basket gave the Apaches a chance. When Sanger’s final shot went in-around-and-out and a jump ball was called with two-tenths of a second left, the Coyotes were ready to celebrate.

“We practice these situations all the time,” senior Ximena Escobar said. “I knew we had to play strong and it was going to be a defensive game. We came out on top in the end.”

Escobar led the Coyotes with 13 points and five rebounds. She also went five-of-six from the free throw line.

“I already knew they were going to double team Alyssa (Burton),” Escobar said. “I went to the high post and if there were offense rebounds to go and get it. I let my team know I had a mouse so I could go up with a shot.”

The Coyotes scored enough points to get the win despite their two leading scorers — Burton and Ashley Hansen — combining for two points.

“Our last year at Exeter, I told them I couldn’t be proud of them,” head coach Jason Smith said. “I was wrong. I’m so happy for this group of kids. I was thinking about it this morning. There was a group of us that has been thinking about this day since this group of seniors was in the fifth or sixth grade. We knew we had a special group. They stuck together really well. We lived by our motto: offense wins games, defense wins championships. Today, it couldn’t be any truer.”

Maria Hernandez drove to through the lane against much taller opponents to score eight points. Hernandez played in last year’s title game, but wasn’t at full strength because of an injury she suffered against Sanger that year.

“It feels great, especially since I got hurt playing against Sanger,” Hernandez said. “It feels good to redeem myself for people I started with and finish business. I saw the lane opening up and saw the opportunity to help my teammates up.”

Madera held Sanger’s leading scorer Vanessa Hernandez to just five points, including going 0-for-12 from 3-point range.

“Early on, Hernandez was struggling,” Smith said. “This arena played to our advantage. We did a really good job pressuring her on every shot. There was somebody always disrupting what she did. She never found any rhythm. When we went man, as long as they didn’t go into the post one-on-one, I wasn’t going to take Maria Hernandez off her. She is the best defender on the ball I have ever coached.”

Both teams had trouble scoring early, combining for eight points in the first quarter.

After Sanger started the scoring, Escobar put back one of many Madera misses to tie the score at two.

Despite getting steals from Brianna Rubalcaba and Alyssa Burton on consecutive possessions, the Coyotes gave the ball right back.

Over a two minute span, the Coyotes turned the ball over on four straight possessions, three of those possessions didn’t cross half court.

The Apaches put back a miss, but Hansen found Escobar for a bucket to tie the score at four with about 2:30 left in the first quarter.

Madera turned the ball over twice and missed three shots to end the first quarter while also forcing three Sanger turnovers.

Hernandez made a free throw and Sanger tied it with one. Escobar made a free throw, but Sanger’s Vanessa Hernandez made a layup to take the lead.

Maria Hernandez made a free throw to tie the game and gave the Coyotes the lead with a driving bucket.

Vanessa Hernandez tied the score with two free throws for the Apaches with 2:29 left in the first half.

Both teams went silent for the 1:30 before Briann Houghton made a free throw for a 10-9 lead. Sanger sent the game into halftime with a free throw with 3.7 seconds left.

Escobar opened the second half scoring with a layup off a Hansen assist. Sanger made a free throw to cut the lead to one with 5:30 left.

Both teams had trouble scoring for almost three minutes until Houghton scored off a Hansen inbounds pass. Escobar made two free throws and Madera opened a 16-11 lead with 2:31 left in the third.

After a Sanger free throw, Escobar sank two more for an 18-12 lead before the Apaches hit a jumper to end the quarter trailing by four.

Lexi Carmona opened the fourth with a bucket and the two teams started making shots. Sanger hit two buckets to cut the lead to two before Escobar scored down low.

The Apaches added a layup and Hernandez made a free throw for a three-point lead. Sanger tied the game at 23 with a free throw and a driving bucket.

With about three minutes left in the game, Hernandez turned the ball over while driving to the bucket and was hurt. She lay on the ground while her team played defense. Sanger tried to take advantage, but missed a quick shot. Alyssa Fernandez came down with the rebound. At that time, Hernandez peeled herself off the court and called for the ball. She settled down to make the layup to give the Coyotes a lead.

Sanger tied the score with a layup, but Hansen gave the Coyotes the lead with a driving bucket with about minute left.

Sanger made a free throw with 55.4 seconds left to cut the lead to one.

The Coyotes, trying to break the Sanger press, threw the ball out of bounds. However, Sanger missed a shot and Hansen came down with the rebound and was fouled with 24 seconds left. She was fouled again and missed the front end of a one-and-one with 19 seconds left.

Sanger got the ball in the post and missed two straight shots. An Apache came down with the rebound, but was called for a travel with 6.8 seconds left.

On the ensuing inbounds, Hansen tried for a quick pass to Burton, but she crossed onto the court before delivering the pass to give the ball back to Sanger.

The Apaches drove to the top of the key and worked to the free throw line and put up a shot that went in-and-out for the Coyote victory.

“The moment was big,” Smith said “The nerves got to us a bit. Thank God for time outs. We had that last turnover because we rushed. I told them at their last time out that defense is what you’ve got this done all year. It’s only right that we finished with our defense.”


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