After seeing longtime coach Cary Nerelli honored before tipoff Friday night, the Morro Bay High girls basketball team was determined to make the night an all-around fond memory for him.
The Pirates did just that at Cowitz Court, winning a 38-37 nonleague thriller over Mission Prep after making a defensive stand on the final possession.
Sophomore center Hannah Gilbert had 15 points on 7-of-15 shooting for Morro Bay and also pulled down 18 rebounds. Point guard Megan Hansen had seven points and seven steals in the win, and Nicki Bloom had eight points.
Jenna Dunbar led the Royals with 18 points, and Bri Harvey added seven.
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Prior to the start of the game, Nerelli — a Mission Prep alumnus who picked up his 400th career coaching win earlier this season — was presented a scrapbook filled with mementos of appreciation and letters of praise from local peer coaches, athletic directors and officials alike.
“We definitely wanted to win for coach,” Hansen said. “We all knew it was coming, the 400 wins, this whole presentation. It was good to win for coach. It felt great.”
Nerelli was met wit mutual applause from both sides after John Iribarren — his coach nearly 50 years ago — shared stories of his playing days with the crowd.
“The rivalry (between Mission Prep and Morro Bay) goes back to that point,” Nerelli said. “Just like coach Iribarren was saying, I played here, and my start was here. When we come back here, I just feel like it’s such a great rivalry. It’s a friendly rivalry, but it is incredibly intense.”
The Pirates (14-4) came into Friday ranked No. 6 in this week’s CIF-Southern Section Division 4A poll; Mission Prep (15-5) was No. 8.
Morro Bay led 30-19 on a Sierra Wilcox 3-pointer with just under five minutes remaining in the third quarter, but Mission Prep fought back to tie it at 33 midway through the fourth.
A driving shot by the Royals coming out of a timeout with 4.1 seconds left was off, sending Pirates players into jubilant celebration rallying around Nerelli.
“It was an intense emotion for a couple of reasons,” Nerelli said. “To be able to come away with a win of any sort at this gym is significant for us. Secondly, it’s the second close game back-to-back (that the Pirates have won).
“More important, I think, than the win, is the growth that’s got to come from this,” Nerelli added. “It’s a young team, and we have to take these last few games and put them into perspective and look at what it took to win those.”
Nerelli was especially complimentary of the recent play of Hansen, his only senior and a third-year starter.
“She’s given the responsibility of having to teach them, coach them,” Nerelli said. “Everybody we play double-teams her, and she has risen to the occasion every single time and has brought this team along.
“You take her off this team and we’ve won four games. That’s how important she is. If I was going to start a team of all the players we have in this area, and I could pick anybody I wanted, my No. 1 pick would be her.
“She’s not the biggest, she’s not the fastest, she doesn’t lead the county in scoring, but she’s a leader and she’s a winner.”
Morro Bay, despite not having even a junior to offset its underclassmen, has legitimate aspirations of contending for an LPL championship, bringing a 5-1 league mark into Friday.
“We’re definitely pulling together,” Hansen said. “We’re all so close, I feel like I’m just one of them. I don’t feel like I’m two years older.”
Mission Prep needs to win 50 percent of its schedule this year to be eligible for the Southern Section playoffs as a freelance team, and 80 percent to guarantee itself a berth.
Mission Prep 70, Morro Bay 45
The Royals may not have a league, but coach Terrance Harris has implored them to approach dates against local teams with an amount of intensity as if they were league games.
That’s precisely what Mission Prep brought Friday night, dominating after a 14-8 Morro Bay first-quarter lead to claim a physical contest that featured a combined 56 free-throw attempts.
“We took a little bit of time to settle in, but from the second quarter on, I really like the way we competed,” Harris said. “We played very hard.”
Mission Prep (12-7), which blew the game open with a 23-point second quarter, had consistently good balance inside and outside offensively, as shooting guard Andy Rowley and power forward Art Lane each had a team-high 16 points.
Meanwhile, 6-foot-6 center Zach Allmon had 11 points and nine rebounds (one off his average, which is second along the Central Coast).
“Zach’s done a great job on the boards,” Harris said. “He’s taking it personally that rebounding is his responsibility.”
Mike Cardwell chipped in 10 points for Mission Prep.
Edward Griley led Morro Bay (11-9) with 18 points, and Luke Munds had 12 in defeat.
Mission Prep’s boys, ranked No. 6 in Division 5AA, face the same requirements to get into the Southern Section playoffs as the girls team because of their independent status.
“We try and simulate that it’s a league game for us,” Harris said. “That’s all we can do to help keep our guys sharp.”