Rancho Cotate rally clinches NBL-Redwood girls hoops title

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The stakes were as high as ever entering Tuesday night’s clash between the top two girls basketball teams in the North Bay League-Redwood division — the Rancho Cotate Cougars and the Maria Carrillo Pumas — with a pennant hanging in the balance.

Cougars head coach Mario Newton billed the game as the “contest of the year” following his team’s most recent win, over Healdsburg High, on Thursday. Newton — in true Nostradamus fashion — was spot on, as Rancho (17-8 overall, 9-0 NBL-Redwood) narrowly pulled out a 58-55 win in the Pumas’ gym to keep their record perfect in league play, capturing a second consecutive league title in the process.

The loss eliminated Maria Carrillo (17-8, 7-2) from the league title race, since only one game remains in the regular season.

Carrillo was the team that struck initially on Tuesday, jumping out to a 18-9 lead after the first quarter. Pumas guard Kristina Singleton was hot early, scoring 8 quick points.

But the Cougars were able to storm back in the second quarter.

Aided by a switch from a zone defense to a man defense, Rancho cranked up the intensity and outscored Carrillo 22-11 in the second frame. Sophomore guard Keyonee Neal contributed 10 points in the quarter to help lead the comeback.

The Cougars went into halftime up 31-29 after senior guard Jada Buckley’s steal-and-layup as time expired finally gave them their first lead of the game.

That lead would never be relinquished, despite a valiant late push from the Pumas. The Cougars extended their advantage to 54-44 with three minutes to play when a frenzied effort from the Pumas’ offense began. The Pumas whittled the deficit down to 58-55 before a turnover ended the game.

Neal, who has emerged as a star for the Cougars this season, once again led the way, recording 19 points and 16 rebounds.

While a win in a pivotal league game is always special, this one is particularly sweet for the sophomore. Neal’s two older sisters, Madison and Aaliyah Sowards, both played and starred for the Pumas in their high school careers in the early 2010s.

The outing is the latest in a series of impressive performances for Neal.

“She is the tempo of our team,” Newton said. “As you can see in the game, she scored 19 points and had 16 rebounds, and about five steals.

“The reason she didn’t score more is because they already know who she is. Every time she gets it, they’re sending two, three people at her. She’s a smart player, so when they send three people at her, she’s throwing the ball out.

“For her, she’s the barometer of how well we’re going to be doing out there on the floor. When teams are doubling up, she knows what to do. She’s just an all-around player. She can shoot the three, she attacks the basket. You see she dominated the rebounds out there, so she’s everywhere. She’s difficult to stop. She is definitely a refined player. Her game is awesome, and it’s getting better and better. And with tough competition like this, she steps up to it.”

Also chipping in for the winning effort was Buckley with 17 points. Guard Tatum Maytorena had 8 points.

Rancho’s win streak is now at an impressive 10 games, while the average margin of victory over opponents is 25.2 points during that span. The Cougars have not lost since Jan. 4, and are playing their best ball with section playoffs looming around the corner.

“The mood of the team — we’re feeling good, man,” Newton said. “We’re getting ready to go into (NBL) playoffs here, and then we’re really getting ready for North Coast Section playoffs. Right now, we’re seeded about No. 8. But with the new open division, we’re probably gonna hopefully be a 5 or a 6 like we were last year. So we’re really looking forward to that.”

The Cougars will aim to finish out the regular season undefeated with a home game against El Molino on Thursday at 7:30 p.m., while the Pumas host Piner on Thursday, also at 7:30 p.m.

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