Keppel's Lauren Saiki dribbles past Canyon guard Leilani Okihara during Saturday's Division 2AA quarterfinals. (MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS/Rafu Shimpo)

Rafu Sports Editor

ALHAMBRA.–As the final shot rattled and rolled around the rim Saturday night, no one in the gymnasium had as much riding on it as Sandra Gao.

Mark Keppel High School’s lone senior was on the bench, having fouled out, and the fate of her prep career rested upon the ball falling through the hoop.

“I felt so helpless, just sitting there unable to do anything,” said Gao, after her Lady Aztecs pulled off a heart-stopping 56-55 victory over visiting Canyon of Canyon Country in the CIF Southern Section Div. 2AA quarterfinals. “This is my last year and I didn’t want it to end tonight,” she said.

With all of six seconds to play in the fourth quarter and her team down by a point, Keppel junior Alyson Lock received the inbound pass, drove the length of the court and managed to get a three-foot shot to fall. Time expired as Canyon inbounded the ball, setting off a wild, bleacher-clearing celebration on the court.

The game was a rematch of the December thriller, in which Keppel narrowly defeated Canyon by four points. With Saturday’s win, the Aztecs earn their second straight trip to the semifinals, tonight at Lynwood High.

After falling behind by 10 at the outset, Keppel deployed a smothering trap defense, which put them firmly in control for the remainder of the first half. However, head coach Hon Trieu sensed his players were tiring at halftime and switched to a zone defense after the break.

The slower pace allowed Canyon to claw back, and the shots that had been falling for Keppel earlier in the game were missing their mark. Missed free throws in the final minute by Carina So and Lauren Saiki turned the screws further still, as Canyon closed in.

With 11 seconds left to play, six-foot junior Alia McCoy put the Cowboys ahead by a point with a field goal that momentarily seemed to take all the wind out of Keppel’s sails.

That’s when Trieu called upon Lock, his star and the game’s high scorer with 26 points. For him the play was a no-brainer.

“Why get in her way? I’m not that good of a coach. That’s exactly why she’s Alyson Lock,” he reasoned.

Comforted by assistant coach Krista Arase, Keppel's Lauren Saiki is moved to tears after Saturday's win.

Saiki was reduced to tears after the win.

“I’m so happy we won,” she said. “This was the team to beat.”

Saiki finished with three points. Junior Samantha Lee electrified the crowd by hitting a trio of three-pointers in the first quarter for her nine points.

“Our defense was everything in this game, and once that started to fall apart, we gave them the chance to come back,” So explained. “We knew we had to stay up and sink free throws, and I had trouble at the end.”

Assistant coach and former Keppel star Krista Arase said the defense held reasonably well in the second half, but her team’s problems arose as their offense faltered.

“We needed to find their shooters a little bit better,” Arase explained. “We lost our awareness of where they were and they were able to hit some threes that really hurt us down the stretch.”

Arase, the former star of Cal State Bakersfield who has returned to lend her expertise on the Keppel bench, added that she wouldn’t have missed this for the world. “I knew I had to be a part of this. I knew we had a great team with great players and I knew this was going to be the team that goes.”

The Lady Aztecs will take on Lynwood tonight at 7 p.m. with a trip to the Div. 2AA final on the line. The Knights stunned a talented Canyon of Anaheim team, 61-38, to earn their place in the semis. In that game, Canyon junior guard Lindsay Uyematsu, who had been averaging more than 10 points per game, was held to just two, on 1-for-8 field goal shooting.

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