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Visiting Hercules caught Petaluma cold out of the gate and held on grimly in the final minutes to defeat the T-Girls, 63-57, in the opening round of the North Coast Section Division III playoffs Tuesday night at Petauma.

The Lady Titans, second-place finishers in the Tri-County Stone League in the East Bay, rattled off 10 unanswered points in the first quarter, and led, 27-23, at intermission. Hercules was able to beat Petaluma consistently down the floor after missed shots and turnovers, resulting in easy transition baskets, and the lead which they held for the entire game.

Unheralded shooting guard Etiene Ekanem was the villain of the piece from the Petaluma standpoint, repeatedly driving through retreating T-Girl defenders for bank shots and assists to make any late charge by Petaluma nothing but continued frustration.

A disappointed Petaluma coach Doug Johnson was realistic in assessing the outcome, and the effect the game had on his very young charges. "We didn't seem to have much of a feel for urgency until the final minutes, and then it was too late," he said.

"I told the girls that this game should not take away from the great season that they had this year.

They understand. I am proud of them."

As bad as things looked down the stretch, trailing by 14 points in the final stanza, the T-Girls came on like gangbusters to close the gap to 57-54 on back-to-back baskets by Joelle Krist and Katy Bisges, and the raucous crowd exploded as Hercules called time out.

Two 3-point shots by senior Carol Oldan nailed the coffin shut for the Lady Titans, as they refused to buckle under intense defensive pressure by Petaluma and guard Lisa Guptil. Six converted free throws helped along the way.

Ekanem finished with 18 points for the Lady Titans, who improved to 17-11 for the season, and earned a second-round meeting with John Kennedy of Richmond on Friday. Freshman Alyssa Rodriguez added 13 points, including two huge shots from deep.

Hercules and Kennedy are familiar league foes, having played each other twice in the regular season. In their last meeting, Kennedy emerged a winner, 72-71.

Krist matched that total for the T-Girls despite sitting out most of the second period with two personal fouls. Her work around the baseline was very effective, and included 10 points in the fourth quarter when Petaluma made a serious run.

Sophomore running mate Katy Bisges (12.4 ppg) again emerged as the player the T-Girls went to in the clutch, and she delivered 11 points in the second half, as well as applying serious pressure in the back court.

Despite her years, the young sophomore played with an enthusiasm and passion during the long season usually shown by players in their final two seasons. Bisges, Krist and center Allison Scranton will all return next season, and Petaluma fans will be hard pressed to wait for the T-Girls to mature even further, with emerging point guard Cassie Baddeley also in the mix. Six of the T-Girls are sophomores, including Jenna Teagarden and Maddie Mehciz who have shown steady progress as well.

Scranton continued to pound the boards for Petaluma with 9 rebounds in the first half, and finished with 10 points for the contest. The 6-foot center averaged 8.5 points per game, with most of her best work coming late in the season.

"We forced the action in the final minutes, but never did get into any offensive flow," explained Johnson, "I don't think we ran too many regular offensive sets because Hercules kept forging ahead,"

Petaluma finished its season with a 24-5 record that included a perfect 12-0 run to the Sonoma County League championship and two more wins to give it the title in the post-season SCL Tournament.