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Birmingham defeats Palisades behind Janna Holley's heroics to make LACS Open Division finals: 3 takeaways

Holley had 30 points on six made threes for the Patriots.

LAKE BALBOA– Birmingham outlasted Palisades 58-47 on Tuesday to punch its ticket to the L.A. City Section Open Division finals and dethrone the two-time reigning Open Division champion.

Janna Holley went off for 30 points for Birmingham, which took the lead early in the third quarter and never relinquished it. Here are three takeaways from the game:

HOLLEY HAS CAREER NIGHT; PATRIOTS PLAY A COMPLETE GAME

It was the Janna Holley show on Tuesday. That's far from an uncommon occurrence for Birmingham, but this was a true legacy game for one of the City Section's best players of her time, in a duel with CSU Fullerton commit Demonnie Lagway, another one of the City's best and most accomplished players of this time period.

30 points was the fourth-most of Holley's career, and her six made threes doubled her previous career-high of three makes from downtown, which she has achieved many times. She scored four points in the first quarter, after which Birmingham trailed 11-10, and she knocked down two threes in the second quarter to finish the first half with 10 points, at which point Birmingham still trailed by one (22-21). Holley hit another pair of threes to help ignite a Patriots run in the third quarter, which they finished with a 39-33 lead, and she hit yet another pair of threes – in addition to scoring seven other points – to muster 13 points in the fourth quarter and lead Birmingham to a 58-47 finish. Their 11-point lead to end the game was the largest of the game.

In addition to a particularly stellar game from their star, the Patriots' recipe for success was the same as usual. They held the Dolphins to a ho-hum offensive night by keeping them from getting many easy looks in transition, and flying around in a well-oiled manner in their half-court defense, both rotating in help effectively and also forcing turnovers. Offensively, they did it by committee after Holley, but second-leading scorer Dee Dee Berry contributed her usual 10 points, and multiple other players hit big shots. Overall, Birmingham brought and sustained the energy of a young team that was hungry to get to the finals.

Holley picked the right night to have one of her best games yet, as her Patriots were tasked with taking down a battle-tested powerhouse with a finals appearance on the line. Her career-high is 34 points, which came earlier this season when Birmingham handed Pali its first loss within City Section play since the 2018-19 season – a 58-49 win in which Pali was missing Lagway.

Long a dangerous playmaker and scorer off the dribble, Holley's continually-improving three ball is one of the biggest reasons for her ongoing ascension as a player.

"It's really just been about confidence for me," said Holley, an elder statesman of this team after playing with a talented 2021 core in her previous years at Birmingham.

"The coaches have confidence in me. They let me shoot it, so I shot it."

"It's easy when your hardest worker in practice is your best player," said head coach Victor Koopongsakorn on Holley bringing along an otherwise young, inexperienced team this season.

"Then the rest have to follow... when they see her step on the court, or they see her in a drill, or when we get out there and scrimmage, she's business. She wears her mask all the time, and before that she already didn't smile too much, but I can tell she's having a ball out here. Tonight she was really in her element. In a close game, we're going to find a way to get the ball into her hands. Now having Natalie [Lopez] helps because Janna doesn't always have to bring the ball up the court. We can send her around to different spots on the floor, and she's not that kind of selfish player who [won't play off the ball]. She'll do anything for the team, and that's amazing when you have that skill and talent but you're still so humble."

As usual, Holley also made a huge dent in the defensive end, checking Lagway effectively and also notching at least five steals, with three alone coming late in the second half in Pali's back-court to protect Birmingham's momentum. Lagway still finished with 23 points in an impressive effort, and scored all 14 points of Pali's points in the fourth quarter. Still, she had a challenging time creating on Holley in the half-court.

"[Lagway] is a hell of a player," said Coach Koop. "We really focused our defense plan on pretty much putting our best defender on her, which is Janna. Even though she gave up some inches on her, she's so tough.. she's willing to do anything. Janna has been through it all, she's been here four years... she's really driving the team on both the offensive and defensive end."

"I knew she was left-handed so I had to play smart, keep her on her right hand," said Holley. "I always love a challenge."

"That game took some years off my life for sure. But we played so hard," said Koop.

"We owe [credit] to our seniors that were here last year, even a couple former players in the stands that were here three or four years ago that really set the foundation and showed the underclassmen what needs to get done to get to the next level. Especially at this school, in this gym you see so many [banners for] championships in other sports, but this would be the first girls basketball championship since 2010 in Division 3. Probably the first time we've been back."

PALI'S REIGN IS OVER, BUT ITS SEASON AND LEGACY ARE NOT

After winning three straight City Section championships heading into their senior seasons, a semifinals exit is probably a bitter ending for the Dolphins' decorated 2022 class. However, while their their chance at a three-peat in the Open Division/four-peat overall are over, their season isn't. And that's particularly meaningful for a team with as much CIF State/regional hardware as Pali since head coach Adam Levine took over a few years ago.

The Dolphins have actually won five titles in the last three seasons when you include their regional championships in 2019 and 2020, and they very well may have parlayed the 2020 one into a state championship had the pandemic not stopped high school sports right before the state finals. So, if they can do what they've done before, and continue getting better even past the section playoffs, their season could be far from over, and they could make it four straight seasons with championships. And no matter what happens, Pali's senior class is still one of the most accomplished in recent section memory.

Taylor Arnold added eight points for the Dolphins, and Elise Arnold finished with six points and eight rebounds.

STAGE IS SET FOR FUN TITLE GAME AS BIRMINGHAM PUTS ON FOR THE WVL

For the first time in a long time, the City Section Open Division title game features two teams that didn't win their league. In West Valley League play, No. 2 Birmingham lost 57-50 and 43-39 against No. 1 Granada Hills Charter, and Granada was upset by No. 4 Westchester 49-42 on Tuesday. Westchester fell 64-61 and 57-44 against No. 3 Palisades in Western League play, and both Birmingham and Westchester won out in the rest of league play to get undisputed second-place finishes in their conference.

That means there really is no major favorite or underdog heading into the finals. Both teams have length and athleticism to get out and run on offense, and fly around on defense. And, Janna Holley going up against Rylei Waugh is one of the best guard matchups one could ask for.

Additionally, despite its concentration of top-tier teams, the West Valley League hasn't been represented in the City Section Open Division finals since Granada Hills Charter made an appearance in 2019, in which it defeated Fairfax. Pali and Western League runner-up Hamilton made it the last two seasons by defeating WVL teams in the semifinals, and for what it's worth, the West Valley League will definitely have a champion in Division 1 as crosstown rivals Taft and El Camino Real will go at it.