The women’s basketball team turned around a 52-44 deficit at the start of the fourth quarter, Wednesday night against Whittier at Frantz Athletic Court, to come up big in their Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference home opener.
Two turnovers in the remaining seconds of the game could have cost the Leopards the win, but La Verne managed to secure a 65-62 victory over the Poets in the closing seconds.
“We need to take care of the ball. We went from only having seven turnovers in the last game back to 18 in this game so we really have to be more careful,” head coach Jason Pruitt said.
To start the fourth quarter, La Verne junior guard Clarissa Perez dribbled her way past a couple of Poet defenders and as her layup made its way in, she was fouled and got an and-one on the play.
Perez stepped up to the free throw line and sank her shot, making it 52-47.
La Verne junior guard Bailey Kurahashi kept the momentum going by hitting a three-pointer, followed by freshman forward Ani Uikilifi scoring two from the line after being fouled by Poet freshman guard Kami Taylor, tying the game, 52-52.
“I think our energy was pretty high going into the fourth quarter,” Kurahashi said.
“We executed all of the little things that we needed to do, and that energy carried over and ended up winning us the game.”
Whittier sophomore guard Cali Cubel responded with a three pointer of her own, which was followed by a drive from Perez, who finished the basket with a calm layup.
Once again, Kurahashi came up big for the Leopards as she sank another three-pointer, making it a 57-55 game for La Verne.
“I was struggling for a majority of the game,” Kurahashi said. “Then in the fourth quarter, I told myself to forget about the last three quarters and I just went for the shot and it went in.”
With the teams going back and forth, the game was going to come right down to the wire as both sides refused to ease up offensively.
Leopard freshman guard Jessica Hanashiro fouled Cubel’s three-point attempt, which warranted three from the line and she managed to score two to once again tie the game.
Now on the opposite end, a Whittier foul on Uikilifi brought her to the line, but she only managed to score one of her two crucial free-throw attempts.
Keeping the momentum going, Perez maneuvered past two Poet guards once again and finished the play with a soft layup making it 60-57 as the clock approached the dying minutes of the game.
“I saw that we were all working hard,” Perez said. “We were playing passionately and I could tell we wanted the win. Everybody came together in the end and we were just able to close it.”
Pressure on Kurahashi from Whittier freshman guard Teani White resulted in a foul, bringing the Leopard to the line for two free throws. Kurahashi scored the first but missed the second, making it 61-57.
After a timeout, Leopard sophomore guard Nyjeeiah Ganan stepped up to the line after a previous foul was called. Once again, the first free throw scored but the crucial second did not, leaving the score at 62-57.
“It was a great team effort from everybody,” Ganan said.
“The bench was loud and gave us a lot of energy, it helped us really dial in and focus on the little things that we needed to do to get the win… It was just a great team effort all around.”
Unable to stop the Leopards’ possession, the Poets continued to foul La Verne and another basket was added to their tally off the free throw.
On the next play, Whittier freshman guard Daisy Cardenas sank a crucial three-pointer and made it a 63-60 game, and Whittier head coach Roy Dow immediately called a timeout.
A turnover by Kurahashi gave possession away to the Poets as they finished a two-on-one play, making it 63-62 with 25.8 seconds on the clock.
After play resumed, Whittier freshman forward Emily Guerena fouled Perez, who took advantage of her two free throws and made it a 65-62 game with 18.9 seconds left.
Following a Poet timeout, their only option to get back into the game was to go for a three-point shot.
Upon the first attempt, Cardenas missed but the ball went out of bounds on a La Verne player and possession was still Whittier’s.
Cubel went for a three-pointer herself during the following play, but missed as well.
The Poets managed to scoop up the rebound and Cardenas went for one last three-point attempt, but her shot never made it to the rim.
The Leopards have a 1-1 record in SCIAC and conference play will resume against Occidental Jan. 1 after a series of tournaments. They start at Pomona-Pitzer’s Rains Center 5 p.m. Dec. 18 against Ottawa, 7 p.m. Dec. 19 against La Sierra and 7 p.m. Dec. 20 against Concordia Chicago.
Next is the Cal Lutheran Tournament in Thousand Oaks, where the Leopards will face Buena Vista at 2 p.m. Dec. 28 and Pacific Lutheran at 2 p.m. Dec. 29.
Crystian Mendoza can be reached at email@example.com.