APTOS — A blown double-digit lead.
A missed free throw in the closing seconds.
An avoidable offensive rebound leading to a dagger 3-pointer.
Calling Cabrillo College’s 79-78 loss to Mission College devastating would be an understatement.
“It hurts,” said Cabrillo freshman guard Savanah Quintana-Martin. “We’re down on ourselves, but it’s part of the game. You have to take it.”
The visiting Saints (12-9, 5-0) outlasted the Seahawks (13-4, 4-1) in a neck-and-neck battle between the top two teams of the Coast Conference South division on Wednesday night.
Cabrillo led 78-76 with 13.2 seconds left, but Mission stunned the Seahawks with Vershara Bell’s go-ahead 3-pointer and survived Veronica Johnson’s half-court heave at the buzzer to down the defending CC-S champion and take control of the conference at the midway point of the season.
“They’re bummed out,” said Cabrillo fourth-year coach John Wilson. “They understand they didn’t play their best, and they understand Mission is a good team.”
Cabrillo, ranked 17th in the state in the most recent coaches’ poll, only lived up to its high standard of play in spurts, as Mission knocked the fast, precise and small Seahawks out of whack — sometimes literally — in a game littered with fouls.
Cabrillo’s most promising stretch: a dominant 13-4 stretch during the third quarter to go up 14 points.
But the frantic and physical Saints weren’t done. Far from it.
Mission cut the deficit back down to five heading into the final stanza, and Alayah Bell’s layup in transition with 6:20 left gave the visitors their first lead of the second half.
Cabrillo wrestled away the advantage from the free-throw line during the last six minutes, but missed a crucial attempt from the charity stripe to give Mission a shot at the win.
Mission freshman Maya Austin clanked a 3-pointer on the final possession but hustled for an offensive rebound between a pair of Seahawks and dished it out to Bell, who buried the deep jumper to go ahead with 1.8 seconds remaining.
Johnson managed to get off a shot before the horn, but her desperation toss smacked off the backboard and bounced off the rim.
“We turned it over, we missed easy shots, missed foul shots, you can go on and on,” Wilson said. “But [the Saints] take you out of your game. They play really hard and they play aggressive. They make you hurry, and when you hurry like that you make bad decisions at times, and we made some bad decisions. With all that said, we had the game. If we had gotten that one rebound at the end, it was over. It’s unfortunate, but they played a great game. Our girls, we played well at times, but at times we didn’t.”
Johnson led Cabrillo with 18 points, and the freshman forward from San Lorenzo Valley High also pulled down nine rebounds. Freshman guard Michaela Thornton, a Soquel High alumna, chipped in 17 points, nine rebounds and three assists.
They were the lone Cabrillo starters who did not foul out.
Sophomores Heleyna Hill, Maddy Miller and Teal Maixner all watched the final moments from the bench, as did Watsonville High alumna Quintana-Martin, who chipped in eight points in a reserve role before picking up her fifth foul.
Cabrillo was called for 28 fouls.
There were at least 50 combined fouls by the end of the night.
“[The refs] were calling it fair, they were calling it on both sides, I just felt they were calling too many fouls,” Hill said. “They were being physical, and we started being physical, so that’s probably why.”
Hill, a kickback from San Jose State, entered Wednesday’s matchup as the second leading scorer in the state (23.6 points per game), but struggled to find good looks against Mission’s box-and-one defense, a scheme often used to defend a team’s star perimeter player.
Hill was held without a field goal until she swished a turn around jumper during the closing moments of the first half. She finished with 13 points — nine coming from the free-throw line — and did well to set up her teammates with seven assists while also pulling down four boards.
“With the different combinations because of the foul trouble, we weren’t as smooth running our offense as we could’ve been,” Wilson said.
Both Cabrillo and Mission plowed their way through the rest of the teams in the conference during the first round of competition, and if they repeat their performances, their meeting in Santa Clara on Feb. 22 could be the difference between an outright title and co-championship.
The Seahawks have the date circled on their calendar, and the hurt from Wednesday’s loss on the way out.
“I think [the loss] is just going to give us motivation,” Quintana-Martin said. “It’s a tough loss, but all we can do is bounce back. If we keep on thinking about it, it’s just going to hurt us even deeper, so we just have to let it go and flush it out.”