On Tuesday night, a promising season came to an abrupt end for the Windward School girls basketball team.
With starting post players Imani Stafford and Kristen Simon out for disciplinary reasons the Wildcats were no match for Gardena Serra, which took advantage of Windward's lack of size in the paint to win 80-58 in a CIF Southern California Regional Division IV semifinal at Los Angeles Southwest College.
"They're a great team," is all Coach Steve Smith said after the game, declining not to discuss the reason two of his best players were benched. Simon said she and Stafford had the flu and were "highly contagious."
On the court, nothing was more contagious than the Cavaliers' outside shooting, which seemed to get better as the game progressed. Without having to contend with the Wildcats' height in the middle, Serra drove the lane for high-percentage layups and putbacks in the first half, freeing up its jump shooters in the second half. Serra was also on target from the free throw line, converting 17 of 22 foul shots. Windward was even better, missing only five of 24 attempts.
After stunning Division I power Santa Ana Mater Dei at the Nike Extravaganza on Feb. 3, the Wildcats were recognized as perhaps the best team in California and were the favorites to repeat as Southern Section and state champions. However, they were upset in triple overtime by Serra in the 4AA finals and their bid for a second straight state crown was thwarted by the Cavaliers as well.
"We're not sure why they didn't play but we wanted to win for them," Baird said, referring to Stafford and Simon. "It was a lot harder this year because everyone was gunning for us, but this will motivate my teammates to come back strong next year."
Baird, a senior forward, scored eight of her 10 points in the first half. Jordin Canada scored 15 points and fellow guard Courtney Jaco added 14, Macchiati Smith and Emily Surloff had seven apiece, Carol Powell had three and Troye Mosley added two points for the third-seeded Wildcats (29-5), who pulled to within six points at the end of the first quarter on Canada's buzzer-beating three-pointer.
"Yes, it definitely made things much easier with those two big girls not in the game," Serra Coach McKinsley Hadley said. "I was as surprised as anyone to see that they weren't out there, but it was important for us to take advantage. Windward has a lot of other very good players."
Serra led by seven at halftime and began to pull away in the third quarter. Siera Thompson's three-pointer ignited a 19-4 scoring run that put the second-seeded Cavaliers (30-3) ahead 57-33 at the 2:53 mark of the third.
Center Rejane Verin finished with 23 points and 10 rebounds, Thompson had 15 points and Deandra Toler added 14 for Serra, which advanced to the regional finals Saturday at Colony High in Ontario against top-seeded La Jolla Country Day (30-1), the San Diego Section Division IV champion.
Tuesday's game was a highly-anticipated rematch of the teams' prior meeting February 29 at the Anaheim Convention Center, when Simon scored 17 points.
Score by Quarters