SACRAMENTO, CA – The awards ceremony on the court and the post game press conference had a Hawaiian theme to it.
Immediately after Menlo-Atherton won the CIF Division II state championship with a 70-63 victory over Rolling Hills Prep-San Pedro in a game they trailed in only once at 2-0, the girls donned their Haku or “lei flower crowns” to celebrate Ohana or “family togetherness.”
The Haku were equally beautiful to the way the Knights girls played in winning a fourth state championship for Menlo, and with Coach John Paye at the helm it brought back memories of the success of the Menlo girls program under Paye always being about family.
Menlo was the younger and less experienced team than a Rolling Hills Prep team that was making its third straight appearance at the Golden 1 Center in Sacramento and many of the analysts thought the previous experience of playing on an NBA court would be an advantage, but it wasn’t.
Menlo (26-5) had won three previous state championships, but the last one was in 1991 as part of a three-year run that saw standout guard Kate Paye (now an assistant coach at Stanford) being coached by her older brother. Rolling Hills Prep was seeking a second straight state title after winning in Division IV last season and losing in the Division V championship in 2017.
Despite several of the Rolling Hills Prep players, in particular junior guard Alyssa Maxey, having two years experience playing at the Golden 1 Center, it was Menlo that came out looking like the more confident team right from the opening tip-off. The Knights made six of their first 15 three-pointers and got out to a 26-9 lead in the second quarter the Huskies did cut to 34-25 at halftime.
“We’re so young so this is something we weren’t expecting,” was Paye’s opening statement at the press conference, but he didn’t leave out the seniors or his top player.
“We’ve won a lot of close games but we couldn’t have done it without our senior leadership,” continued Paye. “Lauren Sun Mi Oh and Maeia Makoni have been there all year, and Avery Lee. She’s only a sophomore but she’s our leader on the court and our emotional leader too.”
After being down by 17 points and then nine at the half Rolling Hills Prep (27-5) fell behind 39-25 after a three-pointer by Coco Layton, but from there the Huskies started chipping away at the lead and got it to three points twice, including 51-48 on the first basket of the fourth quarter.
From there Menlo closed it out on the free-throw line. The Knights scored 19 points in the final period but they only had two baskets but were 15 of 22 from the charity stripe.
“Them chipping away wasn’t by mistake,” Paye remarked. “They’re a well-coached team and in four games I watched on film they never gave up and kept coming back.”
Sophomore Layton was Menlo’s hottest shooter. She finished with a double-double 17 points and 11 rebounds and along the way broke the Division II record for three-pointers with five. Lee, who came close to a triple-double, had 15 points to go with nine assists and eight rebounds. Freshman Sharon Nejad had a double-double 12 points and 10 rebounds, and Makoni added 10 points.
Rolling Hills Prep 6-4 sophomore post Clarice Akunwafo was hard to stop inside and finished with 17 points and seven rebounds. The Huskies also had two girls with double-doubles. Maxey had 14 points and 14 rebounds and Madison Yamanda had 10 points and 10 rebounds.
Menlo played nine players and Rolling Hills Prep only played seven, and that was a factor.
“It was survival of the fittest and we didn’t quite survive,” said Huskies Coach Richard Masson. “We’ve been dinged up and only go seven deep and with four games in seven calendar days it’s been a tough road for these girls and that’s why I’m so proud of them.”
Not only was it a family affair in more ways than one, but Paye completed a unique trifecta of CIF state championships with the win. In 1983, he played and won one himself in a victory over Santa Clara-Oxnard at the Los Angeles Sports Arena for the Division III title. Then from 1989 to 1991, he was the coach of those three in a row that were led by his younger sister. Now for this year’s state crown he was coaching his daughter Georgia, a sophomore who also starts and had six points.
“This one was the most meaningful of all of them,” said Paye, who took a hiatus from 1995 to 2007 before retaking the helm 12 years ago. “I caught the bug again. “Being able to coach my sister and then my three daughters at my alma mater, I’m glad I was able to come back.”
For those who don’t remember Paye is one of the greatest multi-sport athletes in state history. Besides winning a state championship in basketball he was the Cal-Hi Sports 1982 Mr. Football State Player of the Year as a quarterback that went on to star at Stanford and also played for the San Francisco 49ers. He also was a pretty good baseball player as well
When Paye told the media he wasn’t expecting to be in a state title game he meant it. He admitted that he had originally scheduled a trip on this Saturday to spring training in Arizona with special needs son Jack that included a meeting with San Francisco Giants manager Bruce Bochy. Instead, Jack went to the game and to meet Bochy with John’s father (also named Jack).
Spring training can wait a bit but a CIF state championship cannot.