There were less than 20 seconds remaining in the Central Coast Section Division I championship game when the North Salinas High girls basketball team got a chance to talk things over.
The Vikings led by one, and defending champion Gunn had a chance to win the game on the final possession.
This would have been the prime opportunity for the seniors on the North Salinas squad to step up and give that inspirational speech.
Except that this team has no seniors.
They all gave each other inspirational talks in the final moments, and they eventually got the stop that preserved the lead.
And when the final buzzer sounded at Independence High, the five Vikings on the court rushed to their teammates to celebrate a 39-38 win and the school’s second CCS girls basketball championship.
No team had been able to stop Gunn in the last two postseason tournaments. But as the Titans tried to become the first school in more than 10 years to win three Division I championships in a row, they met up with a group of Vikings who won the physical battle inside and out.
“The girls were unbelievable tonight,” said North Salinas coach Darren Jackson, who led the team to its first title since 2010.
Many times this season, the Vikings wore down their opponents in the fourth quarter en route to victories. That appeared to be the case with 6:20 to go in the game, when Aaliyah Urzua bounced the ball to a cutting Alyssa Springs, who slashed through the Gunn defense to give the Vikings a 37-31 lead.
Gunn did not back down.
The Titans went inside repeatedly, and it worked when Meghan Mahoney put back a miss to get Gunn to within 37-33 with 3:59 left.
After a stop, Gunn came right back. Paige Ogawa sank a three to get the Gunn faithful back on its feet. The Titans had to closed to within one and had the momentum.
The teams were all over the place in the next minute, as each forced turnovers and bad shots against the other.
North Salinas recovered first, and Springs was in the middle of things again, getting another bounce pass as she cut to the hoop, giving the Vikings a 39-36 lead.
Gunn got back to within one with 1:01 to go, as it broke the North Salinas full-court press. Mahoney was all alone at the rim and put the ball in, leaving the game at 39-38 North Salinas with a minute remaining.
North Salinas tried to extend the lead but couldn’t, leaving Gunn with a final opportunity with 19.7 seconds to go.
Gunn called a timeout to talk it over. North Salinas prepared to make one final stand.
“We said we’ve got to play the best defense we’ve ever played tonight right now,” said North Salinas point guard Jordyn Enos. “We did, and we did it.”
Gunn’s Zoe Zwerling dribbled as her teammates set up the play. There was some confusion in the backcourt, as the ball nearly got thrown away, but Camille Steger saved it. She passed it to Mahoney, who was a few feet from the rim but double teamed.
Mahoney found a teammate racing to the hoop alone and got the ball to her. The point-blank shot kissed the glass, then the rim, then out.
North Salinas secured the rebound and the championship.
“It’s surreal,” said Springs, who finished with 19 points. “I’m going to wake up tomorrow and feel like it’s a dream.”
Neither team could pull away from each other early on. Urzua powered the Vikings in the first quarter with two three-pointers to help build a 13-8 advantage after eight minutes.
“I practiced those shots for a long time, and it was worth it,” said Urzua, who finished with 10 points.
North Salinas eventually moved to a 16-13 lead when Springs got a steal and a layup with 5:40 remaining in the second quarter.
Gunn then shut down the visitors, going on a 6-0 run to take a 19-16 lead.
Springs got North Salinas back on track, getting a put-back with 32 seconds to go in the second quarter to end the scoring at 19-18 Gunn.
The North Salinas players went into the locker room, but Jackson stayed on the bench with his assistant coaches, which he said is something he normally does.
When he joined the team in the locker room, he praised them.
“I told them that we got them right where we want them,” Jackson said. “They probably expected to be up 20, but they’re only up one. The girls knew what to do in the second half, and they did it.”
It was more back-and-forth in the third quarter until about 2:35 to go in that frame, when North Salinas’ Monae Hobson put in a hook shot that banked in to start a 9-0 run. Urzua picked the pocket of a Gunn player at the timeline and got a layup.
That run was capped off by Springs. With 1:14 left, she grabbed a rebound over two Gunn players and went back up for two while getting fouled. She yelled as loud as the North Salinas student section that consumed a section of the Independence High gym.
“It was such a great moment because every point mattered in this game,” Springs said.
The Vikings had to endure one more quarter of Gunn’s physical play from there, but they did for their 25th win of the season.
Hobson scored seven points.
Throughout the season, which will continue Wednesday at home in the Northern California regional, Jackson has been reminded that his team was special even though it did not have one senior.
“This has been in the making for a couple of years,” he said. “A lot of people think you need some seniors to win, but it can happen at any moment. I pictured this championship happening a long time ago.”