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Emmi Almeida leads Caruthers to Division 3 State title over Granada Hills Charter: 5 takeaways

Almeida, a sophomore, dominates with 21 points as Caruthers edges out red-hot Granada Hills Charter

SACRAMENTO - Caruthers girls basketball is no longer synonymous with small-ball and three-point shootouts like in recent years.

Last season was a banner year for the Blue Raiders, who hit 326 threes at 37-percent clip while routinely overcoming size disadvantages.

But despite graduating a tremendous senior class and having to adjust on the fly, Caruthers is still synonymous with winning.

The Blue Raiders led for the entire game on Friday to pull out a narrow CIF Division III State Championship victory, defeating Granada Hills Charter 54-48.

Sophomore point guard Emmi Almeida stole the show with 21 points, nine rebounds, and six assists – all game-highs.

Granada Hills Charter vs Caruthers girls basketball CIF State D3 Final March 8, 2024 Photo-Dennis Lee20

Here are five takeaways from the game:

1. Caruthers starts fast, holds off GHC surges all game

The first 2 minutes and 44 seconds of the game couldn't have gone much better for the Blue Raiders. Almeida opened the scoring with a steal and layup, freshman Jaylee Moore went through the heart of Granada Hills Charters' defense for a hook in the lane, and Almeida got a wide layup in the half-court off a back cut.

Granada Hills Charter took a timeout with 5:16 left in the quarter and quickly stopped the bleeding. Gabriella Arellano broke the ice with two first-quarter threes, and scored eight of the team's first 10 points.

The teams traded runs for the rest of the first half, but Caruthers' lead never got erased, nor larger than eight points.

2. Emmi Almeida runs the show; Star posts impress, neutralize each other

In a game featuring some heavyweight battles between talented post players – GHC seniors Brigita Bulotaite (6-4) and Emma Perez (5-11), and Caruthers underclassmen Jaylee Moore (6-1) and Celeste Mack (6-2) – it was Caruthers guards Emmi Almeida (21 points) and Gizelle Aguirre (14 points) closing the game with their scoring.

Almeida controlled the tempo of the game even when she wasn't scoring. She led both sides with nine rebounds and six assists, and steadied the ship the few times that it rocked. Almeida was crucial in Caruthers' 14-2 advantage in points off turnovers, both as a disrupter in Caruthers' press and as a facilitator in transition.

Bulotaite and Moore both had highlight moments battling in the low post, particularly in the first half. Bulotaite finished the game with 10 points, six rebounds, and three blocks, and Moore totaled nine points, four rebounds, and four assists. Both shot 50-percent from the field.

GHC wing Karma Paez overcame a slow start to help lead the team's comeback efforts in the second half. She led the Highlanders with 15 points and three assists, and set the tone with her energy progressively as the game went on.

3. End of third quarter decides the game

Still, Almeida and company never let the Highlanders get all the way back in the game.

Winning time for Caruthers proved to be the second half of the third quarter, which it closed on a 16-4 run. Granada Hills Charter came out of halftime with juice, and nearly tied the game at 31-30 early in the third quarter. 

But Caruthers stopped the run before losing its lead, and stormed its way to a 47-34 lead, its biggest yet, to end the third quarter. It went up 43-32 on a two-point basket from Almeida with 2:34 left, 46-34 on an Aguirre three with 1:13 left. Caruthers took its biggest lead nine seconds into the fourth quarter at 49-34 before Granada Hills Charter owned the rest of the quarter.

Still, Caruthers had done enough damage. The Highlanders finished the game on a 14-5 run, but it wasn't enough to come back. 

It got as close as 50-44 at the halfway mark of the fourth quarter following a three-point play by Karma Paez and a free throw from Brigita Buloitaite. The game hung in the balance for two minutes until Almeida hit the dagger, a step-back jumper from mid-range with 1:52 left.

"It was really exciting," Almeida said after the game. "It was a great experience. Especially since I got to do it with these girls."

"I pushed as hard as I could, and I know my teammates did too," said Aguirre, the lone elder statesman on the court. "I'm sad it's ending, but I'm glad I got to end it on a good note."

4. Caruthers goes the distance with brand-new style

Just a year ago, Caruthers was a very different ball club. Seniors led the way as the team averaged 10 made threes per game and had few players taller than 5-8. 

On Friday, Caruthers won both the rebounding and points in the paint battles by double-digits against one of the more formidable frontcourts in Southern California.

When Moore hit a jump hook in the lane over Bulotaite for one of the game's opening baskets, it seemed to signal that Caruthers wasn't going to be yet another victim of GHC's interior dominance. And Almeida, a 5-6 point guard, proved to be one of the most dominant players in restricted area.

"When we got here in [2019], we were so experienced," said head coach Anna Almeida.

"I think I started four seniors. This year was so different. I didn't know what to expect. We only have one senior who gets court time, and the other one is injured. You have a freshman on a big stage, and a sophomore point who has to do big things."

"We're an entirely new team," Coach Almeida continued. "We've literally never had height. Now we have new height, new guards. We play a little bit more like 'old man basketball'. In [recent years] it was go, go, go, shoot the three. We've had to convince them to shoot the mid-range a little more."

"They grew up together these last four months," Coach Almeida said.

"They were just holding together at the right time, buying into each other."

Despite losing in the paint-related stats, Granada Hills battled hard and stayed in the game with hot shooting. Halfway through third quarter, before Caruthers went on its big run, the Highlanders were shooting 6-12 from three and 6-6 from the charity stripe. They finished shooting 7-17 from downtown and 9-10 on free throws.

In addition to Paez' 15 points and Bulotaite's 10, Arellano finished with 11 points and three assists, and Alyssa Badua added eight points and three assists.

5. GHC celebrates gutsy effort, difficult journey to regional title

For Granada Hills Charter, the emotional loss didn't diminish an amazing season sparked by a midseason turnaround.

"I'm very proud of our team," said head coach Rai Colston after the game.

"We've been through a lot this year, and even in this game it showed how resilient we are. I think we were down close to 15 points, and we never quit."

"I'm really proud of you guys," Colston continued, turning to his team. 

"Give yourselves a hand. I know this is a tough pill to swallow, but you guys never gave up this entire season, so be proud of this... We couldn't get over the hump at all in this game after it was close. But I'm proud of their effort and their fight."

Granada Hills Charter's path to a regional championship and state finals in Sacramento was an unlikely one.

Longtime head coach Jared Honig, who led the team to an Open Division title in 2018-19, left after the 2022-2023 season, which culminated in an Open Division finals appearance, Then, GHC senior and reigning LACS Player of the Year Marianne Boco suffered a season-ending injury in July. That boded for some challenges in Colston's first season as GHC's head coach after a successful tenure at a rival in El Camino Real – which they overcame over time. 

Colston had most recently led ECR to a Division 1 section title in 2021-22 before the sides parted ways, and took 2022-23 off from head coaching. Assistant coach Nick Kindel, who had a 159-63 record with Honig in addition to successful tenures as varsity head coach at Northridge Academy and Santa Clara (Oxnard), planned to take a break from coaching after Honig left. But GHC's new hire happened to be Kindel's good friend and former teammate from their high school years at El Camino Real. 

Everyone's strength was tested after a 7-8 start to the season. But the program had the constitution to turn the season around, finishing 21-12 as regional champions.

"After we lost in the [CIF-LACS Open Division playoffs], we had two weeks off. It gave us the opportunity to evaluate the team and see if other players could step up and give us some life, and [they] did," Colston said.

"We stayed in the fight the whole season. The last two weeks have been amazing. I know [the players] enjoyed it, and hopefully we can get back here again."