MCFARLAND — Neli Diaz’s first shot to be the hero for McFarland hit the rim and backboard before falling to the court. Cougars forward Kathy Rodriguez snagged the ball for another chance, but her shot was blocked from behind.
The final seconds of the CIF Southern California Division III girls basketball title game were ticking away and any basket had the potential to make history for the Cougars.
Diaz grabbed the rejection off of one bounce, lofted a layup into the air, making it without any need for the backboard. Players, coaches and some fans rushed onto the court.
But it wasn’t over. The officials put two seconds back on the clock with the McFarland leading visiting Palisades, 68-66.
Three timeouts and a pass swatted out of bounds by Rodriguez later, and the Cougars became champions. Despite losing starter Julie Hernandez to an ankle injury early in the first quarter and trailing by as much as 14 in the second and third quarters, No. 1 McFarland (31-5) came back to beat No. 6 Palisades (26-9), 68-66, to win the Southern California title.
“One word: Relentless,” McFarland head coach Johnny Samaniego said. “Never ever, ever giving up. That’s the way it’s been the whole season long. We’ve been down by worse. They’ve had the poise.”
McFarland will play North California champion Oakland for the state championship on Friday at 2 p.m. at the Golden 1 Center in Sacramento.
It will be the first state title game appearance for the Cougars. Only two Kern County girls teams have played for a state title (Wasco in D-IV in 1989 and Rosamond in D-V in 1990) and neither won.
Only three Central Section teams have won girls basketball state titles. Two of those came the last two seasons.
“I have no words,” Rodriguez said. “I’m speechless. This is something different. This is something new. Our stands are never this full.”
With two seconds left, Palisades had a chance to inbound the ball and try to get off a last shot. McFarland’s Angie Gonzalez batted the first inbound down immediately, leaving 1.7 seconds left. Palisades heaved the next one to half court before Rodriguez smacked it into the ground and out of bounds, running off the remaining time.
The celebration in the sold out gym started again. Rodriguez found her head coach and lifted him into the air. Other players hugged and jumped together.
When Rodriguez was recognized as a member of the winning team following the game, fans erupted with cheers of “MVP.”
In the locker room at halftime, Samaniego told his players that someone had to take the heart of Hernandez and transplant it into herself. Rodriguez, at least partially, took that on. “What’s wrong with me?” she thought to herself after scoring just four points in the first half.
Rodriguez responded with 10 points in the third quarter. As Rodriguez did her work down low, the Cougars slowly clawed back into the game. The 14-point halftime deficit shrunk to seven. Rodriguez hit three straight layups and McFarland’s Lucie Barajas made one at the end of the third to make it 56-52.
“Kathy, all season long, she’s been our foundation, our constant,” Samaniego said.
When Cougars guard Emily Gonzalez hit two free throws with 5:02 left in the game, McFarland took its first lead at 58-56.
The score ended up being tied at 58, 60, 64 and 66. Palisades guard Jane Nwaba made the basket with about 30 seconds left that made it 66-66.
“Honestly, I feel like that’s something that’s always happened with us, but I feel like during the fourth quarter we’re like, ‘Come on,’” Rodriguez said of the comeback.
Rodriguez had 20 points for McFarland and Diaz had 21. Palisades hit eight 3-pointers in the game.
No. 1 McFarland 68, No. 6 Palisades 66
MHS: (31-5): Rodriguez 20, Diaz 21, E. Gonzalez 11, Barajas 2, Perry 7, A. Gonzalez 4
PHS (26-9): Arnold 9, Nwaba 17, Pettis 6, Lagway 11, Montgomery 5, Canter 5, Morris 6, Meskin 3, Ligon 3, Portillo 6.