There’s no way an outsider could fully appreciate what happened that Friday night, March 3, when the final buzzer shrieked through the gymnasium at the Roybal Learning Center in Los Angeles.
Years of toiling hoping, angst, frustration and resignation abruptly vanished.
The Cleveland High Cavaliers girls’ basketball team could call themselves what no previous Cleveland girls’ basketball team could — champions — by virtue of a 50-46 victory over King/Drew High of Los Angeles in the City Section Division II title game.
It was the first ever girls’ basketball championship for Cleveland, and the first basketball championship of any kind since its boys team won back-to-back 3A titles in 1981 and 1982.
Raquel Alotis has spent 20 years as basketball coach, with stops in Chatsworth, El Camino Real and Sierra Canyon. She came to Cleveland four years ago to establish stability for the program, if nothing else. And she’s always been about her players believing in what they have rather than what they don’t.
Winning the title was more than cathartic; it bordered on celestial.
“I’m just ecstatic,” said Alotis, whose 2008 team at El Camino Real High won the City Invitational title. “These kids had to work so hard to get to this point. It was so hard fought and well deserved. That’s what makes it so special.”
Cleveland (18-13) won this one the way it won most of its games this season — by outworking the other team, especially on the defensive end. Their 2-1-2 match zone gave the Golden Eagles (14-8) few uncontested shots with the exception of King/Drew guard Brandi Crawford, who made five three-pointers en route to a team-high 17 points.
“She was on tonight,” Alotis said of Crawford afterward. “I scouted them last week, and she was 2-for-11 in the game. We knew she was their shooter. We drilled for it, planned for it. But she was at another echelon tonight. She had the game of her life.”
But Destyni Heard, with 10 points, was the only other Golden Eagle in double figures. And while the Cavaliers aren’t a great shooting team, they figure they can make enough baskets if the defense holds.
That’s pretty much how things played out.
King/Drew opened up a 10-2 lead in the first four minutes, but Cleveland got the deficit down to 10-8 by the end of the first quarter. The Cavs would take their first lead, 21-20 with 50 seconds left in the first half. Moments later came a big play; Cleveland guard Hadyne Wilson got an offensive rebound and made a layup with 1.5 seconds to play. Even though she missed the ensuing free throw, Hadyne had given her team a 23-22 halftime lead.
“I think it contributed in the long run, because without it we would have still been down,” said a modest Wilson, who led the Cavaliers in scoring with 17 points.
Alotis immediately understood the impact of the play.
“It wasn’t just the points on the board. It was confidence and momentum it gave us,” she said. “And it changed the feel of the game at that time.”
Indeed, Cleveland looked more assured in the second half. And even though the Golden Eagles briefly retook the lead at 28-27, The Cavaliers scored the last five points of the quarter to take a 35-30 lead going into the final eight minutes.
Cleveland appeared to be in control when it reached its biggest lead, 43-33, on a basket by Wilson with 5:09 remaining in regulation. But King/Drew surged back, cutting the margin to 45-43 with a 1:26 to play and Golden Eagles forward Mercedes Ofoegbu had a chance to tie the game at the free throw line.
Ofoegbu missed both attempts, but the Cavaliers still had to dig down deep.
“I thought I would be nervous when we were only up by two,” said Cleveland guard Caleigh Panzarini, who scored six points. “But somehow I got fire within me. I just knew we had to do it, whether I was gonna do it or someone else. We had to. And I was going to encourage anybody.”
The game clock crept along second by agonizing second. Cavaliers center Jamie Mitchell made a free throw — her only point — with 1:09 to play to extend Cleveland’s lead to 46-43. After the defense forced a King/Drew turnover, guard Kate Higashi — a freshman who contributed seven points — made the next big play the Cavs needed, nailing a 10-foot shot to push the advantage to 48-43 with 32.7 seconds left.
Heard threw in a desperation three-pointer for King/Drew with 19 seconds to play, cutting the lead to 48-46. Cleveland inbounded the ball and the Golden Eagles had to foul. Crawford did so, grabbing Cleveland guard Kaye Umeda with eight seconds to play. But that was a double-whammy decision. Crawford fouled out, robbing the Golden Eagles of their best scorer. And Crawford had unwittingly fouled Cleveland’s best free throw shooter.
“We play a game every day in practice; whoever has the highest amount of made free throws is the queen,” Alotis said. “And [Umeda is] normally the queen in practice. So I thought if anybody’s going to be on the line, I’m sure as heck as happy it was her.”
Umeda rewarded her coach’s faith, making both shots.
“I was very calm,” said Umeda, who finished with 11 points. “There were some nerves but I had to push them aside and make the free throws because I knew my team needed it.”
As the remaining seconds ran out with King/Drew unable to get off a shot before the game ended, the Cavaliers briefly stood around and looked at each other, trying to comprehend what they had done.
“It hasn’t sunk in yet,” Panzarini said.
“It was an intense moment out there for all of us,” added Wilson.
Umeda searched for the right words in trying to capture the moment and the legacy the 2016-17 Cleveland girls’ basketball team had created for themselves.
“It’s an honor,” she said.