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Etiwanda gets over the hump, beats Sierra Canyon in comeback to win first ever CIFSS Open Division title

The Eagles were down 15 points in the second quarter but went on to win 69-57.

ETIWANDA– It's not often that the Eagles find themselves trailing more than a few minutes into games anymore. The unbeaten top-ranked team in California has been outright untouchable against all but a few of the better teams in the country all season long. 

But on the rare occasion that they do trail by double-digits late, they still win. They had to prove that again on Saturday against Sierra Canyon after trailing by 15 points with a few seconds left in the first half. And now, for the first time, Etiwanda girls basketball is the Southern Section Open Division champion after finishing the game on a 51-24 run to win 69-57. 

After years of contending at the highest level and coming painstakingly close to breaking through – with untimely injuries playing a major role at times – Etiwanda is over the hump. 

"Before, we were a powerhouse without a championship, and now we're a powerhouse with a championship," said head coach Stan Delus, who was in his first Open Division finals in his six seasons at Etiwanda. 

"[The win] solidified what Etiwanda really is. We've been really good for a long time, and we've come up short so many times, and for them to finally get over the hump... it was for all those former players who were here, 35 former players here tonight, they felt it. That was amazing."

Before E-High turned things around in the second half, it was entering perilous waters. 5-star G/F Juju Watkins set the tone early for the Trailblazers by outscoring Etiwanda alone throughout the first half. She had 20 at halftime, in addition to dominating the glass through much of the first two quarters and making defensive plays both near and far from the rim. Had Etiwanda not shifted the momentum immediately coming out of halftime, the game would've gotten out of hand.

But the Eagles had been there before, albeit on smaller stages. They came back from down double-digits against Oklahoma powerhouse Classen SAS, another top-10 or top-five team in the country, to win the Nike TOC. And they came back from down 19 at halftime, down 20 at one point, to stay undefeated against Cathedral Catholic in January.

When you're 27-0, it's hard to have much experience playing from behind, but those two signature wins from earlier in the season clearly sufficed.

"I just said settle down, you've been here before. You know how to come back," said Delus on his halftime message to his players. 

"Show me your heart by getting stops on defense and rebounding. If you keep them off the boards, you're going to be successful."

On defense, settling down meant channeling a lot of frenetic energy into the cohesion and precision the Eagles have displayed all season. After getting into foul trouble in the first half, which included Kennedy Smith picking up her third and sitting the last couple minutes, Etiwanda's rotations tightened up and they stopped fouling.

Offensively, settling down was simply a matter of patience and settling in, per Delus.

"We were stagnant at first. We were one pass, attack, or one pass and a shot," he said. 

"We [told them at halftime] to work the ball around three or four times, make them shift... The key was moving Kennedy to the high post... she knows how to move the ball and create havoc."

Smith, Etiwanda's leading scorer, only scored four points in the first half but had 15 in the second half, while also drawing in the defense to help create more inside-out looks. She finished with 19 points, and Sa'lah Hemingway had one of her biggest games at Etiwanda, scoring 23.

The Eagles' other point of emphasis going into the second half was to go at Watkins, as she had picked up a few fouls. They challenged her inside on offense, and continued their run in the third quarter while Watkins sat with four fouls. It was a charge taken by Majesty Cade that disqualified Watkins from the game with just over three minutes left in the game. At that point, Etiwanda only trailed by three points, and finishing off the comeback seemed to be a formality. Etiwanda would even go on to win by double-digits.

Heading into the week of the finals, the Eagles had hoped for and expected a return of star G/F and senior captain Daisia Mitchell. The St. Mary's commit and MVP of the Nike TOC hadn't played since dislocating her knee in mid-January, and experienced a setback in practice leading up to the championship.

Mitchell, wielding a large knee brace, checked in for the first time since the dislocation to spend the last 20 seconds of the game on the court as the Eagles all became champions. It was an emotional facet of an emotional night.

"I'm just excited for my girls. They never quit," said Delus. 

"We had a setback. Daisia was ready to play, and then she aggravated the knee the other day in practice. That was deflating, but we had a meeting and decided we had to do it for her."

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