By Rob Leon Guerrero
“Talent wins games. Hard work and defense win championships.” AOLG assistant coach Eddie Pelkey gave those words immediately after the Cougars successfully completed back-to-back seasons as high school basketball champions. The Phoenix Center was rocking throughout as supporters and spectators watched an incredible match-up between the Academy Cougars and the St. John’s Knights. The Cougars executed down the stretch on both ends of the court to beat the Knights 50-47, finding contributions from all over their squad to complete the repeat.
With an electric crowd on hand the Cougars controlled the ball early as Alina Bonto evaded Knights guard Kali Benavente for the layup and first basket of the game. St. John’s would respond with guard Nicolette Bulaon hitting a turnaround bank shot. From there, Destiny Castro set the tone for the Knights, stealing a pass from the Cougars and taking it the entire length of the court for the layup.
Although Castro would spark the Knights’ attack, the Cougars defense remained dangerous, hustling for loose balls. A hard drive to the basket by Benavente was turned away by Gemlie Ilao, who recovered the ball and took it end to end for the basket and the foul. The Cougars’ success continued as they exploited the Knights defense on inbounds plays. Bonto managed to find a cutting Duenas for a layup off an inbounds pass. Bonto followed up with another assist, finding Jasie Villanueva for the basket.
Down by five points the Knights executed their fast break offense, epitomized by Benavente who hit a contested layup to close out the first quarter 10-9 in favor of the Knights. Ilao continued her defensive prowess, blocking an open layup from the Knights. Benavente responded by stealing the ball and driving the entire court, hitting a jump shot over the defense of league MVP Kara Duenas. Duenas would respond on the following possession, securing the offensive rebound and scoring the put-back. The Knights continued to push the pace as Benavente cut through the Cougars defense, throwing up a circus shot that went in as she was fouled.
Benavente and Castro would dominate the first half, driving past the Cougars on several plays for easy baskets and keeping the Knights ahead. However, the Knights were unable to build any lead as Bonto and Ilao consistently got to the charity stripe, converting their free throws to keep the Cougars within striking distance. A steal and drive to the basket by Rebecca Rupley was swatted away as Benavente managed to recover from her turnover and the Knights went into halftime leading 27-23.
The third quarter saw the Cougars defensive pressure taken to a new level as they succeeded in forcing turnovers. Rupley led the attack early on for the Cougars, getting the offensive rebound and scoring the put-back for the Cougars. On their next possession, Rupley would find Stephanie Bordallo for the jump shot that tied the game. Despite increasing pressure, Castro responded like a seasoned veteran by elevating her game, scoring all but two of the Knights points in the third quarter. Unfortunate, the Cougars were starting to get rolling. MVP and team captain, Duenas, was able to lead her team down the stretch, driving coast to coast on multiple possessions for the score. Despite a great steal from Castro for the layup to close out the third, the Cougars held the Knights to nine points and took the lead 40-38 going into the final period.
Benavente immediately started off the final period stealing the inbounds pass from the Cougars and finding a slashing Castro for the bucket and the foul. While Benavente and Castro continued to score for the Knights, Cougars’ Bonto continued to drive hard to the basket drawing fouls and converting her free throws. Castro and Bonto would put on a wonderful fourth quarter, matching each other shot for shot. With the score tied at 45, Duenas would once again respond to the moment, scoring off a missed shot. The Knights would make the next move as Castro drove hard to the basket for the layup, and Bonto would once again respond with a drive of her own for the basket to keep the Cougars ahead. Down the stretch the Knights experienced some misfortunes as they were unable to convert any points off of turnovers. A steal by Castro with less than a minute left was thought to be the game-tying basket, but the freshman guard was unable to convert the fall-away layup. With five seconds left and the Knights needing three points to send the game into overtime, Duenas would once again find herself in the right position as she stole the inbounds pass from Benavente that sealed the victory for the Cougars.
As she watched her team celebrate, Cougars coach Jocelyn Pardilla noted her team’s late-game execution as the key to their victory. “Down the last stretch, the girls made some good stops and were able to capitalize on them. They really executed down the stretch (on both ends),” she said.
Finals MVP Duenas echoed her coach’s sentiment adding, “Our plan every game is defense.” On her clutch performance, Duenas explained, “I remembered what it was like to win last year, and I think that helped push me to step up like I did. I did it for my teammates.”
Knights 10, Cougars 9 (1st)
Knights 27, Cougars 23 (2nd)
Cougars 40, Knights 38 (3rd)
Cougars 50, Knights 47 (4th)
Southern 63, Okkodo 62
April Talledo hits two free throws with 0.7 seconds to win the game.
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