By Ray Hamill — The Crusaders went down fighting on Tuesday night.
Playing for a Division-V NorCal title and a place in this weekend’s state championship, the St. Bernard’s girls fell 52-44 to visiting Caruthers High.
In a thrilling contest that went down to the final minute, the Crusaders twice battled back from a 15-point deficit to make a game of it, dramatically closing within a point of the Blue Raiders midway through the fourth.
But on a night where the shots just didn’t seem to fall for the No. 1 seeds, the visitors held their nerve late and held on for the win.
The Blue Raiders will now play Ramona High in the Division-V state decider in Sacramento on Friday.
For the St. Bernard’s girls, a memorable season comes to an end, one that they will remember for many reasons, and one that keeps their North Coast dynasty alive and well.
The Crusaders won a sixth consecutive league title, and a fourth North Coast Section championship in five years.
They also made it to the final four in state play, while posting 26 wins, more than any other Little 4 team, boys or girls, has managed in a single season over the past decade.
“I think if you give this a little bit of time, and reflect about what we accomplished, there’s certainly nothing to hang your head about,” head coach Mark Gardner said. “I’m very proud of the girls.”
The Crusaders continued to play stellar defense, this time against a dynamic Caruthers offense that has averaged more than 60 points a game, but they were unable to match that at the other end of the court.
The Crusaders got the looks, they just couldn’t make the shots early in the game, although they got hotter as the night wore on, scoring 30 of their tally after the interval.
The visitors, on the other hand, couldn’t miss early on, and stormed out to a 17-2 lead late in the first quarter, creating opportunities inside and out and nailing just about every one of them.
“We missed a lot of shots that we normally make in the first quarter, and they made a lot of shots,” Gardner said.
The home team settled down after that early surge, and gradually began to chip away at the lead, pulling within five points with three minutes remaining in the half, and trailing by eight at the interval.
The visitors’ pressure defense, played to near perfection at times, never seemed to really rattle the Crusaders, who increasingly were able to find ways around it.
“We knew their pressure was going to be intense, and it’s hard to practice to try to get ready for teams like that,” Gardner said. “But that being said, I thought we handled it pretty well.
“I’m really proud of the way they handled the pressure. We got the shots we wanted to get.”
The visitors stretched the advantage back out to 15 late in the third quarter and held a nine-point lead heading into the fourth, but the Crusaders battled back again to pull within one point with three and a half minutes remaining in the game.
A couple of big 3-pointers and some clutch free throw shooting down the stretch, however, saw a tenacious Caruthers team hold off the late rally for the win.
The three St. Bernard’s senior captains led the way once again in their final game.
Jasa Sisemore scored a team-high 15 points, including eight in the fourth quarter, while also making five of her six free throws.
Emily Gardner added 12 points and Maddie Costa seven, including a big 3-pointer at the end of the first quarter to get her team going.
All three players left their mark on the program.
“They were our leaders all season, and they were our leaders tonight,” Mark Gardner said. “They were our rock.
“Maddie Costa has heart, and Jasa and Emily bring a special skill set and special will to win.
“The three of them never quit and gave everything they had on the court.”
The Crusaders close out 26-7.