By Nick Giannandrea
As arguably the most accomplished of the six California community college women's basketball teams currently playing, College of the Sequoias has been the hunted during this coronavirus pandemic delayed and shortened season.
And the Giants withstood their toughest challenge to date over the weekend against Allan Hancock.
Sequoias edged the Bulldogs 58-56 on March 19 in Santa Maria, then held off a late Allan Hancock rally for a 55-52 win March 20 at Porter Field House.
The Giants -- who made eight consecutive appearances in the Northern California Regional playoffs before this year's postseason was canceled -- improved to 6-0.
"They have done what the program demands of them," Sequoias coach Ray Alvarado said of his now nine-woman squad. "They have managed to take everyone's best shot. That's what teams are doing right now, trying to win that one (marquee) game. And the reason why I know that is because I've been that coach. When I first started, I just wanted to beat that one team, so I could turn the corner. For them to hang in there and fight and not break as they say, they bent but didn't break, I'm extremely proud of them."
Sequoias played short-handed all weekend with Sapphire Jones (Hanford High) out because of a family commitment, and Hailee Edwards (Ridgeview-Bakersfield) sidelined with an injury to the same shoulder that caused her to miss all but six games last season.
But that didn't stop the Giants from racing out to a 15-point lead at halftime of the two-game series finale. Sequoias was up 11 points with 8:37 remaining in the game following a 3-pointer by Celeste Lewis (Sierra Pacific-Hanford) before Allan Hancock closed with a 12-4 run to make it close.
The Bulldogs (1-3) made it a two-point game at 54-52 on a pair of free throws by Kayla Taylor with 5 seconds to play, but Alana Roberts (Sierra Pacific) essentially sealed the outcome with a free throw with 2 seconds left. A Bulldogs' 3-point attempt at the buzzer was off the mark.
"We knew that was going to be tough games back to back. That's a good team. They have a lot of experience," Alvarado said of an Allan Hancock team that reached the Southern California Regionals last season. "I knew it was going to be especially tough because of the players we were missing.
"We made some mental mistakes at the end and allowed them to get back into the game. I felt we could have won obviously by a larger margin. But good teams aren't going to quit, and they are a good team."
Lewis led the Giants on March 20 with 18 points, three assists, two rebounds, two blocks and two steals.
Roberts delivered 11 points, 12 rebounds, two assists, two steals and a block, while Neli Diaz (McFarland) contributed 11 points, six rebounds and an assist.
Sequoias also received nine points, four rebounds, an assist and a steal from Ayon Carter (Oakland); six points, eight rebounds, five assists and two steals from Serena Ybarra (Coalinga); and four rebounds, three assists and two steals from Nikola Hudson (England).
Statistics from the March 19 game were not available.
Sequoias has the best record of the six-member, one-off, jokingly dubbed, Central California Community College Covid Conference that also features Bakersfield, Antelope Valley, Cuesta and Taft.
"Where I've seen the most growth is they've become a much closer unit," Alvarado said. "When we first started, they were like blaming each other. Maybe not to their faces, but you could see it in their expressions. Now they are more rallying around each other. That's a sign of a good team."
The Giants' nine-game season continues when they host Cuesta (2-0) at 5 p.m. March 26 at Porter Field House.
Sequoias will wrap up its month-long season with games against Taft (0-5): at 3 p.m. March 31 at home, and at 3 p.m. April 1 on the road.
"Whether it's one game, two games, three games or whatever we have left, I want them to play strong and grow and stay together. And at the end of the day, finish the conference right. It would be nice if we could run the table."