M. Terry / SFVS

Still A Reason To Celebrate — The Granada Hills Charter High girls’ basketball team finished second in the City Open Division playoffs.

The strength of the Granada Hills Charter High girls’ basketball team this season has been in its willingness to execute as a team rather than depend on one or two great players to carry the others.

But at the City Section Girls’ Open Division championship game against Fairfax High of Los Angeles on Saturday, March 3, the Highlanders ran into an outstanding solo performance that their group effort could not overcome.

Senior guard Dawnyel Lair put on a tremendous all-around show to propel Fairfax to a second straight Open title as the Lions defeated the Highlanders, 59-46, at Cal State Dominguez Hills in Carson.

Lair, who has committed to Wichita State, had a game-high 23 points. But she also rebounded, played defense, and emotionally spurred her teammates to overcome a five-point halftime deficit by shutting down the Highlanders’ offense in the second half. Fairfax’s full-court pressure held Granada Hills to a total of 15 points the last two quarters.

Both teams entered the game with identical 26-4 records, but Fairfax — at least on this day — showed it was on a different, higher level than Granada Hills.  

Fairfax Coach Charles Harrell, in his first year, was nearly in tears by the final buzzer.

“(Winning the championship) is very special after taking over for [former head coach] Judi Edwards who was one of my mentors,” Harrell said. “It feels so good that I was able to continue…what she’s built. And it means a lot to [the players] to win it two years in a row. I’m just so proud of them.

“There were a lot of questions coming into the season about me, being a first-time coach and having returning players. I owe it all to them for believing in me, and my believing in them.”

It was a frustrating result for Highlanders Coach Jared Honig after seeing his team max its potential consistently this season, winning the West Valley League and reaching the Open Division final.

“We told the kids we had to exceed their level, play together and help each other out, to come back to the ball and cut down on the turnovers. But we gave them too many extra opportunities, which led them to their transition baskets,” Honig said.

Lair’s performance overshadowed a pretty good game by the Highlanders; Haylee Aiden. The willowy 6-2 sophomore had 10 points but also pulled down 24 rebounds and blocked seven shots.

“Since our other post player left, Haylee’s had double-digit rebounds in 12 of the last 14 games, and the other two were nine-rebound games where she didn’t play big minutes,” Honig said.

“She is the personification of the values of our program. We talk of getting better every day and playing our best at the end of the year. Since Haylee’s been here, she’s gotten better every day. And she’s a 4.0 student.”

Unfortunately for Granada Hills, Aiden spent a chunk of the second half idled by foul trouble. When her fourth foul put Aiden on the bench, Granada Hills’ offensive flow also appeared to take a seat.

But Fairfax — and Lair — had a lot to do with that.

Granada Hills started out well, establishing a 24-14 lead early in the second quarter. The Highlanders were hitting open threes as well as running backdoor plays that led to easy layups. They played with confidence and played smart, looking exactly like the team Howell had personally scouted on three different occasions during the season.

The Lions, on the other hand, “had grown stagnant on offense” in Howell’s eyes. Something had to change.

Something did. Fairfax began to press Granada Hills all over the court. And Lair began to find open lanes to drive into — at least the pockets of the court that  Aiden wasn’t patrolling. Alongside Lair, Fairfax teammates Tricia Delph and Chassen Gutierrez (14 points each) also got hot hands.

And the Highlanders, collectively, began to stumble and crumble. Passes were intercepted or thrown away. Shots were more hurried and off target.

Their 31-26 halftime lead evaporated early in the third quarter. Fairfax wound up outscoring Granada Hills 19-7 in the third, and put the game away with a 12-2 run midway through the fourth quarter. The Highlanders only made three baskets in the final period, the last one coming with less than a minute to play. It was the final basket of the game.

“I thought in the first half we shot very well. But in the second half I don’t think we got enough shots,” Honig said. “They increased the pressure, we weren’t as open; maybe we passed up some open shots, too, because of the moment. I just don’t think we had as many opportunities as we did in the first half.”

The loss was a tough one for Highlanders senior point guard Emily Mitchell, who was unable to get a championship ring at Granada Hills 

“I’ve been working on this for four years,” said Mitchell, who scored 10 points. “Every April, we’d start [preparing] right after the postseason. It’s disappointing to come up short but…it was all the mistakes at the end that really hurt us.

“Their defense and athleticism, getting to balls and getting steals, hurt us — especially the turnovers we had. And their baskets in transition; we just couldn’t get back quick enough.”

Hayley Berfield led Granada Hills with 14 points.