By Brandon HENSLEY
Toward the end of the second quarter of Tuesday’s game against Hoover High School, the Crescenta Valley varsity girls basketball team finally started looking like the team that has so far enjoyed a nice run in the Pacific League.
After a stagnate quarter-and-a-half, the Lady Falcons upped their defensive intensity and put a stranglehold on the Tornadoes, leading by 18 points at halftime and eventually winning 52-27, keeping them in position for a league title with three weeks left in the season.
It has been a nice turnaround for Coach Jason Perez and his team. The Falcons were just 9-18 last year and missed the playoffs, mainly because they missed their best player, guard Ella Stepanian who suffered an ACL tear in her right knee in the summer of 2012.
Stepanian, a senior, leads a group of girls who are now 14-6, 5-1 in league with a big game coming up Friday against Arcadia, which is tied with CV for second place at 5-1 in league.
“They are our rival but I like to think of every team as our rival,” Stepanian said. “It’s a competition. But Arcadia games, if you’re not hyped for it I don’t know why you’re at CV. You need to get your head in the game. We’ll actually get a crowd at CV-Arcadia games. It’s really important for us.”
It was an admittedly sparse crowd Tuesday night in the main Crescenta Valley gymnasium. Those in attendance saw Stepanian score eight points on four-for-seven shooting, with five assists. Sophomore center Alisa Shinn was again a key player, as she’s been all season long, with nine points and seven rebounds. Most of Shinn’s playing time came in the first half when she scored all of her points, and her size – she’s 6’ 1” – allowed her to dominate over a smaller Hoover team.
“It’s very … hard,” Shinn said of her being an underclassman on a team with seven seniors. “You have to meet the seniors’ expectations and try your best to catch up with everyone else.”
It was Stepanian who missed a 3-pointer at the buzzer against Burroughs earlier this month, which would have won the Falcons the game, but instead gave them their only league blemish. Burroughs is tops with a perfect 6-0 record. The two teams don’t play again until Feb. 5 at Crescenta Valley.
“We expected to be better,” Stepanian said of the Falcons’ current positioning. “We didn’t expect to be the best. We knew we would have a challenge between Burbank, Burroughs, Arcadia, who we still need to play. But we’ve been preparing all summer long and over the fall to get to this point … this is what we wanted. This is what we came here to do.”
“I’m not going to lie, it’s been really tough,” Shinn said of the Pacific League.
The Falcons opened with a middling performance against Glendale, but pulled away for a nine-point win.
“I think we’re going to pull through,” Shinn continued. “We are getting better as a team. We’re learning our spots, where we like to get the ball and we’re having tough practices. We’re serious about it.”
The Falcons are winning most of their games because each player has a good sense of what role they need to play offensively. Opponents continually collapse on a player who penetrates, leaving Shinn open underneath the basket for easy points. Senior guard Tanisha Minassian has also been a solid 3-point shooter on the weak side, and the Falcons do a nice job of swinging the ball over that way before the defense can react. (Although that wasn’t the case Tuesday. Minassian converted just one 3-pointer in the game on six tries.)
Stepanian is also great – for the most part – on getting rebounds or taking outlet passes and pushing the ball up the court in a hurry. Many of her assists are reminiscent of a quarterback hitting open teammates down the floor before the other team can get back.
Defensively, CV likes to pressure full-court, which throws off teams that don’t a have a game plan for it (Muir and Pasadena). Shinn is also productive down low. She had three blocks in the second quarter against Hoover.
Stepanian said Perez tells them they have 14 individual hills to climb, meaning the number of games in league. While Burroughs was so far the one hill they couldn’t surmount, Arcadia can’t be overlooked. The Apaches dominated the Falcons last season, winning by 30 points and 35 points in their two games.
Tip-off is 5:30 p.m. Friday.