Last year the Heritage girls basketball team was on top of the world, making it to the second round of the NCS playoffs, finishing 19-9 overall and 10-5 in league play, including a three-game sweep of archrival Liberty. Meanwhile, the Lady Lions struggled to a 9-17 overall record, 6-9 in league play and no playoff berth – despite their dominant center, Corinne Costa, who averaged 14 points, eight rebounds and five blocks per game.
This year it’s been quite a turnaround for Liberty, which finished 11-4 in league play and 18-8 overall (as of last week) and made it to the NCS playoffs (the results of first-round play Wednesday were not available at press time) and swept the three games against Heritage.
Costa, now a senior who has grown to 6 feet 5 inches, upped her scoring by a point to 15 points per game but dropped off in rebounds to five per game and blocks to just two per game. The difference this year for the Lions is that Costa got a lot more support, particularly from Bernadette Fong, Erica Williams and Kaadzie Quaye.
Meanwhile, Heritage’s season – despite the inability to beat Liberty – has been comparable to last year’s. The Patriots finished 9-6 in league and 19-7 overall (as of last week) and returned to the NCS playoffs. Last year’s stars – Kiana Caban and Khyia Slone – played even better this season as seniors. Caban upped her scoring average to 17 points from last year’s 12 and increased her rebounding to eight per game from last year’s five. Slone, last year’s league MVP with nine points and five rebounds per game to go with an amazing 107 steals, upped her scoring average to 11.5 points while rebounding and stealing the ball at comparable levels.
Caban and Slone were assisted on offense by the deadly shooting of freshman Lexi Campbell, who scored nearly 13 points per game, many of them from three-point range, where she posted an excellent 42-percent average. Unfortunately, Campbell broke her right wrist in a fall at a Freedom game a month ago and was still out of action, her wrist tightly wrapped as she sat on the bench at the Feb. 16 game against Liberty.
The Patriots also suffered a major setback when their coach, Darin Price, was arrested last month for allegedly soliciting sex from a female student. Price was replaced by Orland Caban, who is Kiana’s father and served as assistant coach for the past three years.
So there was a lot going on in the background as these tough, competitive teams clashed at the Liberty gym last week. Although the Lions ended up winning 44-38, the contest lived up the billing. Heritage battled back to briefly take the lead after trailing most of the first half. And it was still anybody’s game with just 50 seconds to go, Liberty clinging to a slim three-point lead and Heritage in possession of the ball. Increasing the Patriots’ chances significantly was that Costa left the game with 2½ minutes to play after injuring her left leg while defending a drive by Heritage’s Sabrina Engelstad.
But the Patriots were unable to take advantage of the opportunity. Slone was called for traveling as she stepped forward to shoot a three-pointer. Heritage stole Liberty’s inbound pass but Erin Asher’s shot went off the rim. And after that, the Lions made three free throws to close out the contest.
“I’m really proud of how well the girls played tonight,” said Liberty Coach Debbi Weil. “They played hard. Started out a little slow, but picked it up the second half. Especially when Corinne went down, they just seemed to accelerate and pick their teammate up. It’s a nice win. Any time we can beat Heritage is nice. Especially when they’ve had our number in the past.”
The big difference for Liberty was their ability to shut down Caban, who had a cold shooting hand, scoring only three points all night – a layup and free throw with three minutes to go in the third quarter. She had scored 26 points in her previous game against Liberty. Slone picked up some of the slack with 15 points and numerous steals. But with Caban shooting blanks and Campbell remaining on the bench, the Patriots lacked the firepower to catch and overcome the Lions.
“They are a type of team that is deadly with their threes,” said Weil. “If we allow them to shoot a lot of threes and make them, then they are going to stay in the game. If we can shut the threes down and shut Caban and slow them down, that’s pretty much their team, even though they have some strong younger players who will be good in the future. But for right now it’s the two seniors that have led them. And if we can shut them down then that makes things a little bit easier.”
Costa was on her back for several minutes and in a great deal of pain and tears as she was assisted to the sidelines. But Weil was optimistic that she’ll be ready for the playoffs. “She got her foot stuck,” she said. “It tweaked her knee a little bit. I think she’ll be fine. I think it scared her more than anything.”
Other than the Costa injury, the downside to Liberty’s night is that Fong got into foul trouble early and often and wound up with just two points. Quaye stepped up, however, and played one of her best games of the season, leading all scorers with 22 points. Costa finished with 16.
Weil believes her team is ready for the postseason. “I’m looking forward to the playoffs,” she said. “It’s just getting through that first game. It’s uncharted territory for a lot of these kids. We’ve just got to be focused and ready to not make a lot of mistakes and do the little things, take care of the little things.”
Liberty experienced a hiccup in its last season game, however, losing to Pittsburg 46-50 in a game in which Costa did not play and in which Fong fouled out after scoring 19 points.
In first round playoff action Tuesday, the Lions took on Santa Rosa Tuesday at home while Heritage played American at home. The results of those games were not available at press time. If both Liberty and Heritage won Tuesday, they would square off against each other once again in the second round tonight, Feb. 26.