By Rob Leon Guerrero
The road to this year’s high school girls’ basketball championship runs through the Academy of Our Lady of Guam Cougars. The defending champions made that statement Friday evening, surviving a second half rally from the John F. Kennedy Islanders, winning 49-36. Led by league MVP Kara Duenas, along with Alina Bonto and Gemlie Ilao, the Cougars overcame a stagnant third quarter to pull out a win, despite a stellar second half performance from Crystal Pardilla and the Islanders.
Eddie Pelkey, member of the AOLG management expressed his surprise at the outcome saying, “I can’t believe we won, we can’t play like that against the better teams (in these playoffs).” Although falling into a lull in the second half, the Cougars turned to senior captain Duenas, who took over the final five minutes of the game and secured the win.
The first half featured strong play from Bonto and Ilao, who dominated the game across the spectrum, from hustle plays over loose balls to forcing turnovers to converting field goals and free throws and kept the Cougars at an advantage. Bonto scored the first basket of the game driving an open lane thanks to a great screen set by Stephanie Bordallo. Not long after, Ilao relentlessly pulled down two offensive rebounds and scored the basket as she was being fouled. Ilao continued her hard work, blocking the shot of Thesely Reyes and taking the ball end to end for the basket.
The Islanders found success in the shooting touch of Rufena Royster, who converted two mid-range jumpers to keep her team within striking distance. However, careless errors by both teams made for an inconsistent series of runs. A late field goal by Dre Delin was answered with a strong baseline drive from AOLG guard Rebecca Rupley, as Academy went into halftime leading 26-16.
The Cougars started the second half attacking with Bonto finding Duenas cutting back door for the layup. However, the Islanders clearly adjusted to their opponents and pushed the game to another level, executing a 9-2 run in the third quarter of the game. This carried over to the defensive end where the Islanders’ pressure clearly frustrated the Cougars ball handlers, as they were called for five-second inbounds violation twice in the game.
With the momentum swinging in favor of the Islanders, they kept on the attack as Hiromy Atem made an incredible bank shot to close out the third quarter that brought the visiting crowd to their feet. From there, the Cougars seemed unable to keep the Islanders down as Pardilla broke the Cougars defensive press, finding Atem for a three-pointer which forced an Academy timeout. A great baseline drive by Reyes brought the Islanders within three points, however this would be the closest that they would come as Bonto would immediately respond with her own drive through the defense for the basket. A couple of plays later, Duenas would lead a fast break, finding Jasie Villanueva for the basket. On their next possession, Duenas cleared out the lane on the inbounds and nailed a fall-away jump shot to push the lead to 11 points. Although not able to stage another furious rally, the Islanders continued to compete for every loose ball and forced the Cougars to earn the win. Bonto would score a basket off a beautiful post pass from Rupley, and Villanueva would score a basket as the final buzzer sounded, bringing an end to a heavily contested game that had the entire gym in a frenzy.
“We knew we had to keep our composure,” said Duenas of her team’s finishing down the stretch. “This was our last home game. I just took a deep breath, and did what I had to do for us to come out on top.”
“Going into this game, we knew that (Crystal) was going to be tough. She’s our coach’s sister, and we wanted to play well for our coach,” said Bonto. “Our (coaches) told us that whoever wanted it more was going to win, and we wanted it more.” Still not satisfied with her team’s performance, Bonto said, “We still have a lot of hard work ahead of us.”
Duenas would further speak on that sentiment saying, “We’re going to approach our next game as an obstacle and a challenge, and we’re looking forward to it.”
Bonto led the Cougars attack with 16 points, eight rebounds and three steals, while Ilao finished with 12 points, eight rebounds, four steals and a block, and Duenas finished with three steals to go along with 11 points. Pardilla led the Islanders with nine points, to go along with four steals and four assists.
The Cougars will now take on the Okkodo Bulldogs Tuesday night in the semifinals at the Phoenix Center. The other semis will pit the Southern Dolphins and St. John’s Knights.
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