League leading Santa Rosa held off a furious fourth-quarter comeback by visiting Casa Grande, 53-48, Tuesday night to remain tied for the top spot in North Bay League girl's basketball with only one game remaining in the regular season.
The Lady Gauchos, who surprised the NBL favorites in the first round with a punishing 66-41 win in Petaluma, almost got the job done again, but this time, after trailing by as much as 18-4 in the first quarter.
"We shot very well in the first half last time, and I knew that they would be ready tonight," said Gaucho coach Dan Sack. The aroused Panthers hit almost everything they threw up from the inside as they rushed to a commanding lead before Casa could settle in.
Junior 6-foot, 4-inch center Morgan Bertsch and teammate, 6-foot, 2-inch sophomore forward Devin Murray, controlled the boards and the scoring as Santa Rosa rolled to a 29-20 halftime advantage. Between them, the tall Panther front line scored 18 points and pulled down 13 rebounds against the smaller Lady Gauchos after two periods.
While the score was not especially close at halftime, Casa Grande did give some indication that the feisty Gauchos could come back with occasional baskets by Lyndsey Murnin, Meagan Burke and Brooke Santander. Santander did not get discouraged after missing her first 10 shot attempts from the floor, and finally knocked in six points before the break.
Santa Rosa maintained its advantage through three periods, although the more confident Gauchos out scored the Panthers, 19-12, and things got very tense down the stretch. Six points each by Santander and Murnin helped the Lady Gauchos scramble back into the contest with the aid of an effective team full-court pressure defense.
Veteran point guard Katie Daly came off the bench in the final minutes to make a huge difference for the Panthers. Only used for limited minutes by coach Steve Chisholm, Daily brought more stability to the Santa Rosa offense with excellent dribble penetration and six points to help hold off each Lady Gaucho rally.
Finally, a driving 2-pointer by Murnin cut the margin to 41-39 mid way through the final quarter. The teams exchanged baskets, and Santander got short jumper off of an assist by Murnin to tie the game at 46-46 with three minutes left.
Daily came back into the game to add two crucial free throws after a drive from the left side, and the Panthers held serve the rest of the way.
Santa Rosa improved to 11-2 in the NBL to match co-leader Montgomery, a 42-21 winner over Maria Carrillo.
The Lady Gauchos will still have a big voice in the final outcome of the league race as they host Montgomery in the NBL final on Thursday.
"Our season was really made when we won our last four games before tonight," explained Sack.
"Those wins guaranteed a winning season overall and in league play. We should qualify for the North Coast Section playoffs after our league tournament. Even though we had a tough early season schedule, the girls have gotten better when it counted."
Santander got some key hoops in the final minutes, and finished with 17 points as Casa slipped to 8-5 in the NBL and 14-11 overall. Murnin, always a willing passer with six assists, scored 10 points, but missed all five of her free throw attempts.