As Ashlyn Herlihy explained it, the main reason for the Arroyo Grande High girls basketball team’s slow starts also justifies Friday’s first-quarter offensive explosion.
The Eagles always run a set play after she wins the opening tip; if it doesn’t result in points, Herlihy said, the team struggles to find an early rhythm.
But if the shot falls? Well, St. Joseph found out the hard way what happens then.
Meghan Smith drained the first jumper of the game, all five Eagles starters scored in the opening frame, and Arroyo Grande scored 17 of the first 19 points en route to a 50-29 road victory to give it the first-ever undefeated PAC 8 championship in a 14-game league season.
“When Meghan hit that first shot, it got the team going, and it got the bench going,” said Herlihy, who finished with a game-high 19 points. “We had a lot of intensity and energy. Plus, knowing that it was senior night on their court played a big role, too.”
The Eagles (23-2, 14-0) enter next week’s CIF-Southern Section Division 2AA playoffs riding a 19-game winning streak, having not been beaten since a 42-37 loss to Anaheim Fairmont Prep at the Santa Barbara Tournament of Champions on Dec. 20, 2014.
“You think there’d be some little slip-up,” coach Bryan Hutchens said. “There’s normally some game where you just don’t play well, but we were able to avoid that.
“The level of concentration of my players, and bringing that much energy for 14 straight (league) games, I’m so proud of them.”
The Eagles fell behind 6-0 quickly to Atascadero on Jan. 21 before holding the Greyhounds to just five points the rest of the half to in a 53-36 victory — their 11th straight win.
Two days later, against St. Joseph, Arroyo Grande had to overcome a similar deficit in the opening minutes to get consecutive win No. 12, 55-35.
Mission Prep led the Eagles on their home court at halftime Jan. 26 before a 23-0 run by Arroyo Grande put the Eagles ahead for good.
No such rally was necessary in the regular-season finale.
“In the locker room (before the game) we looked around and just said ‘Let’s take it to them,’ ” said senior Alaina Hogeboom, who scored 10 points. “The fact that it was the last league game, we fed off that energy for sure.
“We still need to improve on everything every day, but if there’s one thing we don’t need to improve on, it’s our chemistry.”
Olivia Galindo scored six points in the first quarter, going coast-to-coast for a layup after forcing one of the Knights’ five turnovers in the frame. Brynn Thoming, the other first-year starter with fellow sophomore Smith, made her first 3-point attempt and continued to excel as the primary ball-handler.
“I think we’re transitioning very well — a little better than I thought,” said Hutchens, whose team went 6-6 in league last year and made it to the second round of the postseason. “A lot of that is Brynn Thoming. She gets up and down the floor. She’s athletic and fast and a lot for someone to deal with.”
Smith’s contribution on Friday, aside from hitting the shot that sparked the offense, was sticking with St. Joseph’s best scorer, senior guard Syenna Ramirez, who averages 17.1 points per game and scored 24 points in the last meeting between the teams.
Smith and the Eagles held Ramirez to 10 points.
“She is just ultra competitive,” Hutchens said of Smith. “You wouldn’t see it when you talk to her, but down inside — that furnace is there, and I think (Smith) wanted to get (Ramirez) back for that game.”
The Eagles led 22-9 at halftime and 35-17 heading into the fourth, with Herlihy — the likely league MVP — doing most of her damage in the middle two quarters.
The 6-foot-1 junior had four field goals and was 5 of 6 from the free-throw line in the frames in addition to her usual rebounding prowess.
“Winning league, we were happy, but I think a lot of our players weren’t satisfied just being league champs,” Herlihy said. “We wanted to go undefeated after that, so I think it’s a good sense of accomplishment.
“But I think now we’re like ‘Alright, we’re undefeated in league, now let’s look at the next picture.’ ”