Lauren Saiki finds daylight in a Keppel fast break, during the first quarter of Wednesday night’s CIF-SS Div. 2AA semifinal. The Aztecs lost steam in the second half, and North advanced to Friday’s title game with a 68-59 victory. (Photos by MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS/Rafu Shimpo)

Rafu Sports Editor

ALHAMBRA.–The third time wasn’t the charm for the girls of Mark Keppel High on Wednesday. For the third straight year, they fell – perhaps most painfully this time around –  one win short of reaching the CIF Southern Section finals.

After looking as though they would run away with the game in the first half, Keppel faltered in the second and lost their Div. 2AA semifinal to visiting J.W. North of Riverside, 68-59.

Out of the gate, the top-seeded Lady Aztecs looked as sharp as they had been all season, pressing on defense, converting fast break points and hitting shots from anywhere on the court.

Barely four minutes into the first period, the taller, stronger North players appeared shell-shocked, as Keppel had jumped out to an 11-2 lead. Everything was working for the Aztecs – their inside game with Alyson Lock, three point shooting by Samantha Lee and three steals in the first quarter by Lauren Saiki.

Going into the locker room at halftime, Keppel seemed firmly in control with a lead of as much as 16 points in the first half.

It was a different North team, however, that emerged for the second.

Samantha Lee is fouled on a three-point shot by North’s Tatyana Calhoun. Lee made all three free throws and finished with a game-high 21 points.

The Huskies went to their strengths, establishing a half-court game where they could use their size and power to dominate inside. Kamille Diaz also began to hit the shots they had not been getting earlier, making three 3-point baskets in the third quarter.

Simone De Coud, North’s impressive point guard, was solid throughout and finished with 17 points.

Lee led all scorers with 21 points, including six three-pointers. Lock finished with 19, Saiki had eight and Tammi Matsukiyo added four.

Keppel held onto the lead through the third period. It seemed each time North would make a run, Lee responded with a shot form beyond the arc or Lock would complete a three-point play.

The Aztecs appeared to run out of steam – and luck – in the fourth. With his bench full of reserves, Keppel head coach Joe Kikuchi basically stayed with his starters, though they were growing visibly weary. Shots were taken in haste, the crispness of their passing all but vanished and the rabbit’s pace they established early had slowed to a trot.

With 4:55 to play, North had caught Keppel to tie the game at 53.

Saiki’s errant inbound pass to an opposing player with her team trailing by four and under two minutes left to play was all the evidence the capacity crowd needed to see which club had the upper hand.

Trailing by four with about a minute to play, Keppel was forced to foul on each North possession and never caught up.

After looking like they’d win going away in the first half, Keppel shot 32 percent form the field in the second, while North shot 62 percent.

Kikuchi said a key to North’s win was their rebounding which effectively negated his team’s fast break opportunities.

“They just began to hit their shots,” Kikuchi said. “They went inside to put a stop on us. We went to a zone [defense] to help, but they went to the outside. Everything we did they countered and were able to score.”

Tammi Matsukiyo, center, was among the Keppel players who were overcome after the loss.

Kikuchi, who was promoted to head coach this season after several years assisting, said this was the team he felt could break through into the title game. He called Wednesday’s game the most disappointing he has experienced at Keppel.

“On our side, on offense, nothing went down,” he lamented.

Lock, who will head to Loyola-Marymount in the fall, was inconsolable after the loss.

“At the end, they were just on. We tried to fight back, but the shots just wouldn’t fall our way,” she said fighting sobs. “This really hurts, because this is my last year.”

Saiki had no explanation for the loss, other than to credit North.

“We just couldn’t hit shots. They’re a good team and they brought it to us inside,” she said.

Keppel will now wait for their likely berth into the State tournament. Saiki vowed that her team will bounce back.

“We’re going to keep battling in State. We’re going to keep fighting for our fans and not let them down,” she said. “We worked so hard all year. We’re not done.”

•   •   •

Also on Wednesday, Courtney Jaco scored 20, including six three-pointers, as Windward captured the Div. 4AA championship at the Anaheim Arena, taking a decisive 85-57 victory over Serra of Gardena. The win avenges Windward’s loss to Serra in last season’s final.

Windward (30-0) will now focus on the State tournament, which this year will have the newly-created Open Division.

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