The Cats started NorCals with a trip to Auburn on Tuesday to face the 3 seed Hillmen. Placer High School, nestled in the foothills of the majestic Sierra Nevada, boasted a perfect league record and were 26 – 3 entering the contest. The Cats showed up as the 14 seed, coming off of a disappointing loss in the CCS Semifinals. The Placer gym, a wooden structure built in 1936, was filled with tradition and energy as the teams warmed up. The band, arrayed on the sideline opposite the team benches, blasted hits from last century, including Bon Jovi’s “You Give Love a Bad Name” and Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline”, to greet the entering spectators. Despite the three-hour drive, the Cats had strong parental support in the stands.
The Hillmen squad had height, shooting, and a dangerous transition game. Placer hit a quick three to start the scoring. But the Cats adjusted, and Placer did not make another three-pointer for the rest of the game. The Cats got a bucket from freshman Casey Brennan to get on the board. Free throws from junior Olivia Lo puts the Cats up 4 – 3, and the Los Gatos bench was on its feet. In what would become a theme for the night, junior Ashley Poshard drove to the hoop for a layup, putting the Cats up 9 – 7. But the Hillmen scored 7 straight to take a 14 – 9 lead at the end of the first, and the Cats found themselves in early foul trouble: Poshard had 3 and Lo had 2.
The second quarter went back-and-forth, but the deficit remained the same. The Cats hit three from deep (two from senior captain Sabrina Belquist and one from Poshard) paired with two more Lo free-throws to end the half with 20, five short of the Hillmen. The Cats were upbeat in the locker room, knowing that they had a great chance to come back and win.
And they showed it quickly. The Cats started the third with a 10 – 1 run powered by two driving layups from Poshard, a bucket for Lo, and free-throws from Lo and Belquist. Placer ended the drought with a bucket but could not keep pace as Belquist and Lo each hit a three to extend the lead. Brennan sunk a bucket at the end of the quarter to put the Cats up 38 – 30 for the last frame.
But playoff basketball is rarely over in the third, and this game was no exception. Belquist hit a three-pointer to open the fourth, putting the Cats up 11 before the Hillmen started their comeback. They scored three quick buckets, plus a free-throw, to cut the lead to 4. While the Hillmen continued to score, they were unable to stop Poshard on the drive; she put in three more buckets, and the Cats held a slim 49 – 46 lead. The Hillmen got fouled on two subsequent shots and sunk all four free-throws to edge ahead 50 – 49 with less than two minutes in the game. Lo dribbled the ball up the court and attempted to drive but was thwarted by the Placer defender, so she stepped back and hit a three from top of the key that gave the Cats a 52-50 lead and sent the small but mighty Los Gatos crowd into a frenzy. The Hillmen were not able to connect and were forced to foul. Belquist knocked down a free-throw to push the lead to 3, and the Hillmen missed three shots on their final possession before the time expired.
The bus ride was filled with exuberance and celebration, followed by two hours of fitful sleep, as the Cats made the long and satisfying journey home. They move on to the NorCal Division 3 Quarterfinals Thursday night, where they will face Palo Alto for the fourth time this season.