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FRESNO — Sierra Pacific led a fiery comeback in the final minutes of the CIF Central Section Division IV championship, but it wasn’t enough as the Golden Bears failed to repeat and lost 58-51 to San Joaquin Memorial on Saturday. 

But the season is not over for the team. The Sierra Pacific girls basketball team was awarded the top seed in the Division V state playoffs Sunday afternoon and will play Reseda on Wednesday.

In the championship game Saturday, down 11 points with just under four minutes to play, No. 1 seed Sierra Pacific rattled off six straight points to cut the lead to five. Their small outburst was capped by Sierra Pacific guard Celeste Lewis’ sneaky steal on an inbounds and quick layup.

The No. 2 seed Panthers called a timeout leading 53-48 with 2:58 to go in the fourth quarter. The two teams traded split free throws at the line before forward Alana Roberts’ basket inside brought them to within three.

But it was as close as they would come. San Joaquin Memorial sunk two free throws with 1:41 to go and a missed 3-pointer on the Golden Bears ensuing possession all but ended the game.

“We gave it our all,” Sierra Pacific’s Kaylie Rocha said. “We went out there and we tried our best and we did not give up … it didn’t fall the way we wanted it to.”

It was the sophomores who led the way for Sierra Pacific on Saturday. Alana Roberts had team-highs of 15 points and nine rebounds and Celeste Lewis scored 14 points and grabbed eight boards.

Lewis was given the Fresno Coin Gallery Fighting Spirit Award for exemplifying, “hustle, team work, enthusiasm and plays the game in the spirit of outstanding sportsmanship!”

The Golden Bears (27-5, 10-0 ESL) suffered only their fifth loss of the season and first since Dec. 29 when they lost to Chino Hills 43-40. They had won 17 games in a row in the process.

Sierra Pacific looked to be in great shape early in the game. Their press was making things hard for the Panthers initially and it was leading to the team’s offense.

Kalea Bush scored four quick points to start the game and Janae Tolbert had a steal and assist to Haley Bettencourt who drained a short jumper for an 11-4 lead in the first quarter. The Golden Bears led 14-10 after the first.

They started the second on a 6-0 run, which gave them their first double-digit lead of the game. The Panthers didn’t score until the 4:29 mark and struggled on offense, especially at the charity stripe where they went 3-for-10 in the first half.

Leading 25-15 with 1:26 left, the Golden Bears weren’t able to close out the half as the Panthers hit a 3-pointer and running jumper at the buzzer to slice the lead in half. They walked off the court with an extra boost of confidence it seemed.

The game really unraveled in the third for the Golden Bears. The Panthers came out on an 8-3 run to knot the game at 28. Sierra Pacific converted a three-point play, but San Joaquin Memorial kept coming.

“We weren’t communicating enough,” Bush said. “We weren’t boxing out. We were just waiting for the rebound to come to us instead of going to the ball.”

A free throw and layup tied the game again and then Panthers forward Sarah Garrett’s layup gave them their first lead of the game. A 9-3 run followed and eventually Sierra Pacific was outscored 20-8 in the quarter and trailed 40-33 heading into the final frame.

Rebounding was one of the numbers that stood out in the loss as well as 3-point shooting and free throws. The Golden Bears were outrebounded 52-42 and more importantly 23-14 on the offensive glass. They shot just 1-of-10 from beyond the arc and were 16-of-27 from the free throw line.

“I tell the girls it’s always the little things,” Sierra Pacific coach Amy Bush said. “Not taking care of the ball and not boxing out, that created many problems for us.”

The Panthers turned their free-throw shooting woes around in the second half shooting 16-of-24 and finished 7-of-23 from the 3-point line.

“I’m incredibly proud of them because they never gave up,” Amy said. “They never hung their heads and they continued. They were in the game.”

Noe Garcia can be reached at (559) 583-2431 or Follow Noe on Twitter at @noecarlosgarcia.

Sports Reporter

Sports reporter for The Sentinel

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