GBK: Dons’ comeback falls short against Ventura

The showdown with Ventura was getting away from the Santa Barbara High girls basketball team in the third quarter, as the Cougars went on a 12-2 run to take a 40-26 lead.

But the Dons battled back, forcing turnovers on the press and getting big plays from Amber Melgoza to pull to within two points. They got the ball in the back after Ventura was called for traveling on an offensive rebound with two seconds remaining. Kimberly Gebhardt threw a long inbound pass that somehow got past Ventura’s 6-1 Aubri Knight and landed into the hands of Melgoza along the right sideline. Melgoza threw up a 35-foot desperation shot that hit the rim as the buzzer sounded, leaving the Dons on the short end of a 48-46 score in a Channel League game between defending CIF division champions and top-10 teams.

“That’s the last person you want shooting the ball,” a relieved Ventura coach Anne Larson said. “At that point, the ball leaves her hand and we’re all in the same boat here — it’s in or it’s out. Fortunate for us, we were lucky to come away with that thing.”

Ventura, ranked ninth in CIF Division 1AA, improves to 15-4 and 2-0 in league. Santa Barbara, No. 4 in Division 2AA, is 14-4 and 2-1.

Santa Barbara played its best basketball of the night in the fourth quarter. It created turnovers on the press and got baskets in transition.

“Our team played really hard in the second half,” Santa Barbara coach Andrew Butcher said. “I think we matched their intensity in the second half. But we have to execute offensively. We want to get in a transition game. We didn’t really get up and down the court in the first half and that really hurt us.”

Butcher felt his team got too caught up in the magnitude of the game.

“They got to forget about the importance of the game and focus on the next play in basketball,” he said.

The Dons’ attack was slowed by the Cougars’ defense on Melgoza. She was guarded by the taller Knight, who received support from her teammates. Melgoza still finished with a game-high 27 points.

“You’re not going to take Amber out of the game,” Larson said. “You try and limit her destruction. We were fortunate that our help-side (defense) was pretty good tonight, and Aubri Knight, being a little bit taller and longer made it difficult.”

The Dons like to get the ball to Melgoza on breakouts but it was struggle most of the night. She created a lot of shots but they weren’t falling.

“We wanted to be mentally tough and we wanted to take strong, balanced shots, and tonight I don’t think we did either. Our shot selection wasn’t good,” said Butcher.

The Dons were able to stay close in the first half thanks to their stellar free-throw shooting. They were 10-for-10 and trailed by just six, 28-22, at the intermission.

After Ventura extended its lead to 14 in the third quarter, the Dons scored six straight points to close the quarter. Gebhardt grabbed an errant shot by Melgoza and scored, Jada Howard followed with a 3-pointer and Melgoza made 1 of 2 free throws to cut the margin to eight, 40-32, going into the fourth quarter.

Howard fed Melgoza cutting inside and Melgoza was fouled as she made the shot. She completed the three-point play to make it a five-point game, 40-35.

The Cougars finally got off 40 points when 6-4 Barbara Rangel scored on a press break. Rangel led the Cougars with 14 points and Knight had 11.

Santa Barbara answered with a basket in transition — Liliana Ponce grabbed a defensive rebound and fed Melgoza on the run for a layup. Two Howard free throws pulled the Dons to within three, 42-39, with 4:46 to play.

The Dons played tough defense, forcing Ventura’s Riley Mew to take a long shot with one second left on the shot clock. Mew missed but Rangel was right there for the offensive rebound to give the Cougars a 44-39 lead.

Knight made another big play for the Cougars with a minute to go, driving the left baseline and scoring on a nifty left-handed shot for a 48-40 lead.

But Santa Barbara kept fighting. Melgoza converted another 3-point play with 28 seconds to go and the Dons forced a turnover on the press four seconds later. Melgoza missed a shot but there was a tie-up on the rebound and the possession was in Santa Barbara’s favor.

Melgoza nailed a 3-pointer (her only trey of the game), making it a two-point game 48-46.

Knight was fouled and missed the front-end of a one-and-one. Reagan Flippo grabbed the offensive rebound but she was whistled for traveling.

That gave the Dons one last chance, but their miracle shot wouldn’t fall.

“It was a great high school game — girls, boys, it doesn’t matter who it was,” said Larson. “It was a great high school game between two good teams.”

Said Butcher: “The good thing, it was a two-point game and we got a lot of things we can better at. We’re really excited about that.”

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