By Jeremy Balan
IRVINE — Early Wednesday night, it appeared San Francisco’s top girls basketball team left its game on the runway at SFO.
After a jet-lagged first quarter, where visiting St. Ignatius found itself trailing 21-6, the Wildcats immediately responded with a 21-1 run in the second quarter and never allowed Irvine High School to retake the lead in a 63-55 non-league win.
The difference was an amped up pressure St. Ignatius defense that forced 10 Irvine turnovers and only allowed six shot attempts from the Vaqueros in the quarter, fueling a fast-break offense that netted easy layups for the Wildcats.
“The second quarter was more like us,” said St. Ignatius head coach Mike Mulkerrins. “We’re really trying to work on our depth, get a lot of kids in early in the game, see what they can do, then go with the kids who are playing well.”
Mulkerrins made mass substitutions throughout the game, but it was starters Kaitlyn Crawley, Maria Kemiji-McDonald and Josie Little that spurred the second-quarter run. The trio combined for 21 points in the quarter and were the only three St. Ignatius players to finish in double figures scoring.
The trio also led on the defensive end, with Crawley and Kemiji-McDonald applying the pressure and forcing steals, while Little, a 6-foot freshman center, held down the interior with six blocks.
“It’s something we haven’t had in a long time,” Mulkerrins said of Little’s size and length in the paint. “When we amp up the pressure outside, Josie is there to help out and it’s really hard to shoot over her.”
With Little sitting on the bench in the third quarter, though, the Vaqueros (8-2) broke the SI press, were able to penetrate and tied the game at 41-41 with 1:25 left in the frame.
This time, it was a different group of Wildcats that rose to the occasion, as guards Courtney
Wong Gong, Page Paige Marquez and Stacey Ward combined for 12 fourth-quarter points to give St. Ignatius (6-0) a late cushion.
“[Every player] is not always going to have their ‘A’ game every night,” Mulkerrins said. “Our team is deep enough, they don’t have to have it, because if we compete and play defense, someone will step up every night.”
While six St. Ignatius players scored eight points or more, Irvine was carried by senior forward Jessica Thawley, especially in the Vaqueros’ cold streaks.
Thawley was the only Irvine player to score from the floor in the second quarter and hit three 3-pointers in the second half to finish with a game-high 22 points.
“She hit some big shots to keep us in the game at the end and she’s really consistent,” said Irvine head coach Amy Klamberg. “We rely on her quite a bit to score, play defense and do everything.”
The Wildcats remain undefeated and will take on Canyon of Anaheim, the Southern Section’s Division II-A champion last season, to wrap up their Southern California trip on Friday.
Mulkerrins stressed the importance of not allowing another early deficit on Friday, or more importantly, once West Catholic Athletic League play begins next month.
“I don’t know where Irvine would finish in the WCAL, but you can’t spot anyone 21 points in the first quarter,” Mulkerrins said. “Go up against Mitty, Sacred Heart [Cathedral], Presentation or any team like that, and we will be down 35-3. That can’t happen.”
Kaitlyn Crawley — 11
Maria Kemiji-McDonald — 11
Josie Little — 10
Wong Gong — 9
Two players tied with 8 points
Jessica Thawley — 22
Maddy O’Donnell — 11
Brittany Ballard — 7
Natalie Tran — 5
Rae-Nicole Rios — 4