SACRAMENTO — Call it bright-light syndrome. Call it a sudden onset of nerves, but whatever it was, it bit the Vanden High girls basketball team hard Friday night as the Vikings dropped a 61-56 decision to Christian Brothers in the Sac-Joaquin Section Division III championship game at Sleep Train Pavilion.
A flurry of missed shots early and turnovers late cost Vanden (27-4) a shot at its first-ever girls section championship.
“The bright-light syndrome,” said Vikings coach Allison Johnson. “Top to bottom we were scattered. I thought that we had our chances and we blew it and we know it. It wasn’t something that we didn’t know.”
The stat sheet showed exactly where Vanden fell short, hitting just eight of its 18 free throws.
“Layups and free throws alone would have been enough, not even counting the turnovers,” Johnson said. “Layups and free throws would have been enough and tonight we didn’t have it and it bit us in the rear.”
Both teams started the game with a series of missed shots and it was almost three minutes in when Christian Brothers’ Kira McKechnie sank a layup to take a 2-0 lead.
Vanden’s Lanissa Belk connected on a putback to even it at 2-2, but that was as close as the Vikings got until the third quarter.
A couple of 3-pointers and a layup gave the Falcons (24-7) a 10-2 advantage with 1 minute, 58 seconds left in the first.
Not helping the Vikings was a lopsided foul count that had the Falcons already shooting in the bonus in the first and third quarters.
Vanden finished with 26 fouls to Christian Brothers’ 18.
“The foul count is definitely a factor on paper, statistically, and it’s fact,” Johnson said. “It’s a fact and a factor, and even with that we should have won. We should have made it irrelevant, we should have made our layups, we should have made our free throws, we should have made it all and we didn’t.”
The Falcons also hit 18 of 34 free throws.
Even the players admitted to being a bit awestruck by being in the championship game.
“I think everyone was just a little over excited about being here,” Vanden captain Adrianna Jones said. “We missed the easy stuff at first, which if we even made half of it, we would have won.”
Behind 15-7 after a quarter, Vanden minimized turnovers in the second and rode a 14-10 quarter to a 25-21 halftime deficit.
The Vikings put up a solid third quarter, holding the Falcons to seven free throws through the first 4:03 of the half. Jones opened the second half with a 3-pointer that closed the gap to one at 25-24.
A Kayla Blair layup tied it at 30-30 before Lanissa Belk finally secured a 33-32 lead for the Vikings with a bucket at the 3:21 mark.
A nearly three-minute dry spell to end the quarter left Vanden again trailing 36-35 heading into the fourth.
Six turnovers in the final 8 minutes sealed the Vikings’ fate and nullified the stellar efforts of Toni Taylor and Mariah Williams, who combined for 17 of the team’s 21 points that quarter.
“I thought the two of them asserted themselves all game and did everything I was trying to ask of them and we needed more,” Johnson said. “We needed more.”
Williams led Vanden with 17 points and nine rebounds, while Taylor put up 16 points. Kayla Blair also had 13 boards, while Aleseana Whitney grabbed seven.
With the Vikings down 59-53, Taylor drained a 3-pointer from the left side to get within three with 7.4 seconds left.
Vanden was forced to foul with Christian Brothers shooting double bonus and the Falcons’ Neil Valmores sank two with 5.5 seconds left to put it out of reach.
“They’re all very emotional and disappointed themselves, they’re all very much looking internally – no one ever does the blame game, but they’re very much looking inside, almost putting too much blame on themselves,” Johnson said of her players. “I told them I’m not proud of the way we performed, but I’m proud of the way we fought.”
The loss also snapped Vanden’s win streak at 18.
“I guess 19-0 would have been overrated,” Johnson laughed.
The road isn’t over for the Vikings, who will play on into the state tournament starting Wednesday when the Northern California regionals open.
Johnson said she’ll learn the team’s seeding in that bracket Sunday.
“We’re going to have to do this the hard way and I’d rather have this talk now than later,” she said. “The beauty in this loss only is because we get to live another day.”
Jones was also quick to note that the season’s not over yet.
“We’ve just got to come back. It’s not our last game, so we’ve just got to go 5-0 from here,” she said.
A 5-0 run would give the Vikings a state championship.