SACRAMENTO - With his eyes red and emotions overcoming him, McFarland girls basketball coach Johnny Samaniego made sure his players thanked the large crowd from town that took over Golden 1 Center on Friday.
The Cougars just lost to Oakland High, 51-35, in the CIF Division III State Girls Basketball Championship and Samaniego was at midcourt accepting the runner-up trophy.
Heartfelt in defeat, the 13-year head coach knew that despite the loss, the McFarland community would travel to Sacramento and root on his team regardless of the outcome.
“That was huge,” Samaniego said. “That means a lot. It’s once in a lifetime. God willing that we opened the doors and be here more often.”
This was McFarland’s first state title game appearance. It was also just the third for Kern County in girls basketball and the first since Rosamond lost in the D-V finals in 1990.
McFarland cancelled school on Friday and it appeared most of the student body and a good portion of the city was on hand for the championship game.
“It’s such a great feeling knowing that half of McFarland is here,” senior Neli Diaz said. “They love us and support us no matter what.”
There are four seniors on the team — Diaz, Kathy Rodriguez, Julie Hernandez and Emily Gonzalez — that are four-year varsity players. They’ve been teammates in some capacity since second grade.
The four have helped McFarland (31-6) to 106 wins over the last four seasons, including 60 wins over the last two years. Diaz, Rodriguez and Hernandez are all 1,000-point career scorers and leave McFarland following the best season in school history.
“Now I can say that this is the best team McFarland has ever had,” Samaniego said. “This is the best team I have ever coached.”
Despite shooting just 28 percent from the field, Oakland (30-5) was able to disrupt the McFarland offense as the Cougars committed 28 turnovers. The Wildcats capitalized off 19 steals, as Morgan Dunbar (20 points, six steals) and Khirah McCoy (18 points, three steals) combined to outscore McFarland by themselves.
“We could have played so much better. It’s unfortunate that we lost," Diaz said. "Someone has to lose. But we beat ourselves today. I can say that.”
McFarland (31-6) trailed by 14 at the half against Palisades in the Southern California regional finals Tuesday, but rebounded to win 68-66 on a last-second shot by Diaz to advance to Friday's state championship.
Emotions overcame Rodriguez when reflecting on how the Cougars were never able to mount a comeback on Friday, after Oakland opened the third quarter on a 9-0 run.
“I don’t think we ever lost confidence at all through the whole thing,” Rodriguez said before pausing to regain her composer.
“It’s tough. There is no way to explain it,” Samaniego said. “It hurts. It’s going to hurt for a while. We aren’t going to blame nobody. The game was out there on the court. You’ve got to give it to Oakland. They are a great team and a physical team.”
Diaz led McFarland with 13 points and scored the first five points in the fourth quarter to cut the Oakland lead to 41-33, but the Wildcats ended the game on a 14-2 run.
Hernandez scored nine points and grabbed nine rebounds and Rodriguez added six points and a game-high 10 rebounds.
“I never had this in my life. I have never been given an opportunity like this before,” Diaz said. “Just looking back for me, as a little girl my freshman year, to be here in this arena, it’s a special moment. We will never forget this moment.”
CIF Division III Girls Basketball Championship
At Golden 1 Center in Sacramento
Oakland 51, McFarland 35
MHS (31-6): Diaz 13, Hernandez 9 (9 rebounds), Perry 2, Rodriguez 6 (10 rebounds), Gonzalez 5.
OHS (30-5): McCoy 18, Trahan 1, Kearney 2, Dunbar 20, Alexander 2, Figg 2, Pearson 6.