LANGLEY – There was a time with about a minute remaining in the game Thursday night, that both the St. Thomas Aquinas Fighting Saints and the St. Thomas More Knights were taking turns missing free throw after free throw.
In a one point game, with a berth to the B.C. senior girls Double A Final Four in the line, it was clear that both North Vancouver’s No. 6-seeded Saints and Burnaby’s No. 4-seeded Knights were figuratively gripping the moment a little too tightly.
But then with 30.6 seconds left and STA clinging to a 64-62 lead, the Fighting Saints inbounded in the front court, and with a show of poise and focus, somehow managed to get the ball to the one player who might represent the highest percentage to score in all of B.C. high school girls basketball.
Jessica Clarke, STA’s 6-foot-2 Washington State-bound senior post took a pass right in her deep-paint wheelhouse, and quickly managed a lay-in for a 66-62 lead.
That, and three clutch free throws from little-known Grade 11 guard Taleen Markarian were enough to dissipate the effects of a trey from STM’s Bella Gaspar with 6.5 seconds left, giving Aquinas a 71-65 win and chance to face the No. 2 Britannia Bruins for a spot in Saturday’s title game.
STA and Britannia tip off in the first of six B.C. semifinals Friday beginning at 11:45 a.m. at the LEC.
“I think for us the key was our composure under pressure,” noted STA head coach John Prescott “St. Thomas More’s pressure game is second to none, and their girls play so desperately hard, that we had to rotate the ball well. The kids became more conscious of Jessica and (6-foot SFU recruit) Gemma (Cutler), and then down the stretch the two of them showed some great leadership.”
The Knights, who had beaten the Fighting Saints in their only previous meeting this season, at the B.C. Catholics, seemed to be rising a wave of emotion down the stretch.
Gigi Gaspar’s triple with 4:40 left pulled her team to within 57-55, and although she fouled out of the proceedings just seconds later at the other end of the floor, twin sister Bella Gaspar took her lead, and hit the first two of the team’s three straight triples.
And when point guard Cassiel Penalosa knotted the score at 61-61 with the third trey, with only 2:26 left on the clock, the contest had reached classic status regardless of what else would transpire.
Clarke scored a game-high 36 points and grabbed an incredible 27 rebounds in the win, going 12-of-14 from the charity stripe.
Cutler had 15 points and seven rebounds.
Gigi Gaspar scored 29 points and had six steals, while Bella Gaspar had 18 points and four thefts. Penalosa had 15 points and five steals.
Afterwards, Prescott was moved by the grit of his team.
His daughter, point guard Caelan Prescott, coming back from a back injury earlier this season, wound up in hospital emergency in the wee hours of Thursday for a stomach virus which subsided just enough to play about an hour before game time and she went on to finish with seven points, six rebounds and five assists
As well, Markarian went three-of-four from the stripe at a vital stage of the game despite a broken toe and sprained ankle, both on her left leg.
“We’ve had an up-and-down year but we seem to be playing our best basketball at the right time,” said Prescott. “I’ve been coaching these kids since they were in Grade 4 and 5 so it’s great to see them playing so well.”
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