OAKLAND – The defending CIF champion and top-seeded Oakland Tech Bulldogs breathed sighs of relief moments after dispatching eight-seeded American 61-60 in the NorCal Division II quarterfinals on Thursday night at home.
As the score suggests, it was anything but an easy victory; in fact, the Eagles led by 10 late in the third and by three with under two minutes to play. The Bulldogs’ Stephanie Okowi had the winning basket with 19 seconds left, two defensive stops in the final seven seconds, and filled up the stat sheet.
“I thought this was gonna be one of the toughest games in this bracket,” Oakland Tech coach Leroy Hurt remarked. “We could play so much better. You don’t get it inside to the proper people at the right time. But we made plays to win the game.”
Oakland Tech (24-8) needed a big game from their 6’0” senior post, their leader in just about every major category. Okowi dominated the paint with 16 points, 12 rebounds, and four blocks, and she tacked on six assists and three steals.
American (28-3) benefited from a great performance of its own, as guard Dawson Bell delivered with 27 points, seven steals, six rebounds, and four assists. Bell was particularly effective in the second quarter, when she scored 13 points that spurred the Eagles to a 32-29 halftime lead after they trailed 13-8 at the end of one.
The Bulldogs, after falling behind 46-36, chipped away until it was 54-53 with 3:13 to play. Natalie Kao struck from deep, and with 1:40 left Bell also hit from three, but Okowi had an assist to Rakyha Reid, scored a bucket of her own, then scored again and was fouled after a steal and assist by Jordan Smith.
Okowi missed her free throw, but the Eagles traveled on the ensuing possession. Bell, however, came up with a steal, leading to a Kao one-and-one free throw attempt. She missed, and Okowi hauled down the rebound and drove coast-to-coast for a game-deciding layup.
American still had chances; after a timeout Oakland Tech had a huge steal off the Eagles’ inbounds pass, but seconds later the Bulldogs’ inbounds pass ended up in the hands of Chiara Brown following a scuffle. When the front end of her one-and-one free throw bounced off the back rim, American’s Maddie Grisson got the offensive board. Okowi and Reid thwarted her put back attempt, and when Brown corralled the deflection Okowi raced over and swatted away her shot inches from the hoop. Reid collected the ball and was fouled with one second left, and the Bulldogs successfully got the ball inbounded to complete the thrilling victory.
“I told them very few teams leave the season happy, but we’re not going to be defined by our last game, (or) our last possession,” American coach Keith Ramee said. “We let them get into transition in the fourth quarter. She kept coming and kept coming and that’s what great players do. It was an honor to play a top seed like Oakland Tech.”
Nalayah Carminer added 15 points, with three treys, and Reid tallied 10 points and 12 boards, for Oakland Tech. Kao chipped in 13 points for American.
The Eagles improved upon last season’s 22-win total and made it to the NCS Division I semifinals.
“We really could have won,” Bell said. “It came down to the simple stuff. It’s tough, but I’m proud of my team.”
“They were ready to play,” Hurt said about the Eagles. “Everything that happened tonight, we went over to a T.”
The Bulldogs will host No. 5 San Joaquin Memorial on Saturday. They defeated the Panthers 54-53 in the opening round of the West Coast Jamboree Gold Division in December.
“We could have played better…but a win is a win,” Okowi stated. Referencing the quest to repeat as State Champions, she said “We got new players that want to experience that.”