The Atascadero High girls basketball team thought it was closer with Arroyo Grande than the 66-45 score of their first meeting on Jan. 9 indicated.
The Greyhounds more than proved it Friday night, handing the Eagles their first PAC 7 loss of the season, 44-38 at Ewing Gym to earn a share of first place in the league standings.
“We definitely felt that,” Atascadero coach Jim Stecher said. “Not to take anything away from Arroyo Grande — they created that problem for us (in the earlier game), and we didn’t rise to the occasion.”
The “problem” he was referring to was a 16-0 first-quarter hole the Greyhounds found themselves in on Jan. 9. On Friday, however, they held Arroyo Grande (15-6, 7-1) — the eighth-ranked team in Division III-AA of the CIF-Southern Section — to that total in the first half, establishing a 25-16 lead before hanging on down the stretch.
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“We didn’t play as well defensively in the first half as we typically play,” Eagles coach Dwight MacDonald said. “We were getting beat to spots, and we didn’t execute very well on offense.”
Key in the turnaround, Stecher said, was the return from injury of starting point guard Casey Nero. Nero, a sophomore who entered Friday’s contest leading the PAC 7 in both assists (6.1 per game) and steals (3.5), had missed the initial matchup with a shoulder injury. While she had two points Friday, she provided a stabilizing presence in the backcourt, setting the tempo and feeding forwards Raven Taylor and Shannon Berwick.
Taylor, who entered second in the league in scoring at 16 points per game, had 15, while Berwick was effective from the perimeter, hitting a pair of 3-pointers, and also inside, posting a game-high 18.
“We played really well as a team,” Stecher said. “They put a lot of pressure on Raven, but after Berwick started doing her thing, then Raven opened up.”
Atascadero (15-3, 7-1) — ranked No. 13 in Division IV-AA — took a 12-4 lead out of the gate before going up 14-9 after the first.
The Eagles steadily rallied after the break, though, tying the score at 33 on a 3-pointer by Christina Combs with about seven-and-a-half minutes remaining in the fourth.
“We knew that just because we were winning at halftime, it didn’t mean anything,” Taylor said. “It didn’t matter if we were ahead — they could come back any second. When it got tied, we had to really slow it down and take good shots.”
Arroyo Grande also tied it at 37 on a pair of Jenna Sverchek free throws with 4:05 left. Atascadero surged ahead for good, though, soon after, on a layup by Taylor that was followed immediately by a steal and ensuing layup by Alyssa Palma to push the advantage to 41-37. Palma, naturally a sharpshooting off guard, had taken over point guard duties while Nero was out.
“In a way, it was a plus,” Stecher said of the team’s growing pains without Nero. “We got a lot of kids to step up and move up a notch, which is making them stronger now.”
Haley MacDonald sank a trio of 3-pointers to lead Arroyo Grande with nine points, while Rachel Ventura, Madi Ventura, Maddie Carr and Sverchek all had six apiece. To Dwight MacDonald, the end result simply was further proof of this season’s improved depth in the PAC 7.
“I haven’t made this a secret,” he said. “There are a lot of good teams in this league. It’s a very balanced league.”