They had one window now, prying the glass open just a little, fighting back because these Etiwanda Eagles would never quit no matter how hard the titan in front of them punched.
Down by five to San Jose’s Archbishop Mitty with two minutes left in Saturday’s Open Division state final at Golden 1 Center, coach Stan Delus calmly sat his players down in a timeout. Pointed at each of them, and with his voice steadily rising to a crescendo, delivered the message that will go down in Etiwanda program lore.
“Change your mindset … that’s all you have to do right now in this moment,” Delus roared. “So step up now and play the moment.”
For three years, junior Kennedy Smith had been playing the moment. And as the minutes ticked down and Etiwanda fought back, tying the game at 67 with a handful of seconds left, possession and a shot at a state championship, it seemed only right that the ball be in Smith’s hands for her shot at another moment.
She dribbled baseline, firing a long midrange jumper, the ball ticking off the backboard and swirling around the rim once. Twice. Dropping, heart-wrenchingly, off iron. And into the waiting arms of junior Jada Sanders, who scored on the put-back as the buzzer sounded and pandemonium ensued in a 69-67 win.
Her teammates mobbed her at half-court, melting into a puddle of disbelief, spilling out like the gallons of emotions the Eagles have expended in a miraculous season.
Jada Sanders scores for Etiwanda at the buzzer to lift Etiwanda to a 69-67 win over Archbishop Mitty for the girls’ Open Division state title.
“It went up, I said — ‘Wow,’” Delus said, miming his eyes widening at the layup, the Eagles bursting into laughter in the postgame news conference.
They beat La Jolla Country Day in the regional semifinal. They somehow knocked off Sierra Canyon, the familiar foe that took them down in the Southern Section finals, in the regional final. And they outlasted Archbishop Mitty, three massive wins against three of the best private-school programs in the United States for a program that’ll always see itself as a public school repping the Inland Empire.
“We got wind that there was some disappointment about playing us instead of Sierra Canyon — hey, they wanted getback from last year, I get it,” Delus said of Archbishop Mitty’s loss to the Trailblazers last year in the state final. “But I have to make sure people understand, we’re not just this school … for some strange reason, we’re still looked at as, we’re good, but are we that good? Can we be that good?”
“We can,” Delus continued. “We actually can.”
Sanders walked away the hero, but Smith was the end-to-end engine, putting up a statline that spoke for itself but couldn’t speak for the sweat she left on the floor: 30 points, 13 boards, six steals, four blocks.
Three years ago, in the summer of Smith’s freshman year, she walked into a practice against reigning 6-foot-4 Etiwanda post monster Jessica Peterson. And Delus will never forget how Peterson, now a center at Southern Methodist University, went at her. Challenged her.
So Smith, Delus described in the fall, waving his arms to demonstrate, went right back. Caught the ball. Elbow. Bucket in the post. She was there to play as an equal.
“She never backed down from anything, Kennedy Smith,” Delus said earlier this season. “I know they say Juju [Watkins] is a transcendent player,” he added in reference to Sierra Canyon’s star, “but Kennedy is that glue.”
Every time Smith steps on the floor, she moves like she’s already been wronged. Like the best player in the opposing jersey has stolen something of hers. It could be Mater Dei’s Addie Deal; could be Watkins. Doesn’t matter. Smith, Delus said, specifically requests to guard the other team’s best player every game.
And at the end of the first quarter Saturday, after she sent back a Mitty layup with a thunk of a two-hand block, Mitty’s star freshman Mckenna Woliczko became her Peterson for the final 2.8 seconds of the period.
As Peterson caught an inbound, Smith dug into her stance and invaded her airspace, completely cutting off any access to drive. And when Peterson attempted to rip through, Smith deflected the dribble and dove on the loose ball, coming up screaming as Etiwanda preserved a narrow first-quarter lead.
After a flat second quarter and a four-point halftime deficit, the Eagles came out with customary ferocity in the third quarter, swarming as Smith teleported into passing lanes and scored seven straight Etiwanda points off solely layups. But smooth Mitty junior Morgan Cheli countered with her own array of finishes, holding a one-point Monarchs lead through three quarters.
Fouls and injury slowed the fourth quarter, Cheli limping off the floor only to return with just minutes to spare to raucous applause. But these Eagles have waded through mud all season, mucking up the pace at their discretion, executing down the stretch. And as they held the state championship trophy aloft, the familiar chants came from the loyal brass behind the bench.