With a young team still learning the ropes of varsity girls basketball, San Luis Obispo High turned to veteran Jessica Judge when looking for the knockout punch Thursday night against Nipomo at the Perry Ford Invitational.
And the senior guard delivered.
Judge converted a three-point play with 33.5 seconds remaining to break a tie, and the home-team Tigers held on to defeat the Titans 40-35.
The 6-foot All-County first-teamer finished the game with 20 points and 10 rebounds, including an offensive board following her own miss that led to the game-winning bucket.
“I totally missed the shot, but I knew I needed to not give up and go right after it,” said Judge, the only player remaining from last year’s squad.
Also playing with an inexperienced team, Nipomo senior Mercedes Rodriguez did all she could to make sure the fight went the distance, pouring in 19 points — 10 of which came in the fourth quarter.
“She’s been outstanding for us,” said Nipomo coach David Mendez, whose team started two freshman. “As a senior, she’s a great leader on the court for these younger players.”
Following Judge’s basket, Mendez drew a play to try and let his senior answer, but the Tigers were waiting for Rodriguez when she came off a double screen behind the 3-point arc.
“I was definitely trying to get her a shot,” he said, “but San Luis played tough defense.”
Rodriguez was forced to pass the ball inside, and the Titans couldn’t convert. Natailia Demartini came down with the rebound for the Tigers — their 42nd of the game.
“(Rodriguez) is their shooter and we knew that going in,” San Luis Obispo coach Dan Monroe said. “We lost our assignments a few times, but overall, I thought our energy and intensity on defense was really good for four quarters.”
Judge added two free throws in the final seconds to ice the game.
“Usually, we kind of break down at the end because we have a really young team,” Judge said. “We tend to panic and rush things. But I think we did a really good job of staying calm and collected.”
San Luis Obispo (5-2) outrebounded Nipomo (1-4) by a 42-22 margin, including a 21-9 advantage in the second half to help the Tigers climb back from a three-point halftime deficit.
“They kind of bullied us on the blocks,” Mendez said. “We just didn’t do the fundamentals of boxing out, and they pushed us around.”
Stephanie Brenner joined Judge in double-digit rebounds with 10.
“In years past, we haven’t had that kind of height advantage,” Judge said. “Last year, I was one of the tallest girls, and it was hard to play outside and then have to get down and rebound.”
Judge got off to a quick start, hitting a baseline jumper and a driving layup for the game’s first two points.
But both offenses quickly sputtered, struggling to string together consecutive possessions without turnovers.
The Tigers outrebounded the Titans 21-13 in the first half, but committed 15 turnovers to Nipomo’s 10.
The Titans got 3-pointers from Kylie Mendez, and Kelly Springfield along with three field goals from Rodriguez to head into halftime leading 14-11.
San Luis Obispo took a 22-20 lead in the third quarter on a field goal from Brenner, and no team led by more than three until the final 10 seconds.
“It just took us a half to get our offense going,” Monroe said. “I thought the second half was the best basketball we’ve played all year.”
San Luis Obispo hosts Frontier at 6:30 tonight in the tournament.
Nipomo plays Righetti at Morro Bay at 5 p.m. today.
“It’s a great learning experience for these girls,” David Mendez said. “(Righetti) is another big, physical team, so we’re going to have to clean up the fundamentals and try to be a little bit more aggressive.”