Morro Bay High’s girls basketball coach Cary Nerelli hoped his players could knock down a few shots early in the game Wednesday to build confidence and settle their nerves playing against the fourth-ranked team in the country.
That didn’t happen, and the Pirates found themselves down 18-3 after the first quarter against Windward in the CIF-Southern Section 4AA quarterfinals.
With the game out of hand early, Morro Bay went on to lose 71-23 against the most talented squad that Nerelli has ever faced as a longtime coach, he said.
“We’ve never been fortunate enough to play a Top 25 team in the playoffs, but they just played at another level,” Nerelli said. “I was just impressed with their teamwork and their unselfishness, and they hit the boards relentlessly.”
Junior Sierra Schwellenbach led the Pirates with nine points on three 3-pointers.
Senior center Hannah Gilbert, playing in perhaps her last high school game, was held to six points and six rebounds.
Four Wildcats scored in double figures, including explosive junior Jordin Canada, a USA Basketball Under 16 team player and a top women’s college recruit, who had 17 points.
Nerelli said Morro Bay (22-4) still has a chance for an invite to the state tournament, but if this is it for the Pirates, he said it has been a great run with six seniors, led by Gilbert.
“We wouldn’t be where we are without our seniors,” Nerelli said. “The growth in those kids since their freshman year has been tremendous. I’ve seen them develop athletically, emotionally, in every way. They’re more skilled, more mature. It’s like watching your daughters leave after high school.”
Nerelli said he wished his team could have another crack at Windward because, even though they were outmatched, the players wished they could have played better.
Still, the unbeaten Wildcats (28-0), of Los Angeles, had a lot to do with the score and have made other teams look very bad in the playoffs thus far, outscoring their first two opponents before Morro Bay by a combined 114 points. The Wildcats are ranked fourth nationally by USA Today.
Under coach Vanessa Nygaard, a former Stanford standout and WNBA player, Windward used a swarming defense, and Morro Bay had trouble working its way out of traps. The Pirates had 24 turnovers.
On the offensive end, Windward hit nine 3s, including four by Emily Surloff, who had 20, and Courtney Jaco, who had 16 points.
And Canada was simply too skilled and too quick for the Pirates to handle, using head fakes to penetrate the lane and getting to the rim for off-balance layups and short jumpers.
Gilbert had a tough matchup in 6-foot-1 power center Kristen Simon, perhaps the thickest player she’s ever played against.
And they had several battles down low for position that drew four fouls by the third quarter on Morro Bay’s 6-3 Cal Poly-bound center.
Kara Schmidt had four points for the Pirates on two nifty contested driving shots.
With a few minutes left in the contest, Nerelli took out his core group and they huddled together with the players in tears.
Gilbert said Morro Bay players were disappointed at what might have been the final game of a season that included a 16-game win streak and back-to-back undefeated Los Padres League seasons.
Gilbert averaged 18 points, nine rebounds and two blocks per game on the season, and ranks among the school’s all-time leaders in scoring and rebounding.
“We got back there and we were just bawling,” Gilbert said. “It wasn’t so much about the game but about the team. We play for each other and it was sad to think that this could be the end.”