ANAHEIM -- That No. 1 tag hanging on Brea Olinda is sure attractive to other girls' basketball teams.
The run through the Southern Section Division 1AA playoffs has been anything but easy for the nation's top-ranked team. There was a two-point victory in the quarterfinals, and they met more fierce resistance on Tuesday at Anaheim Arena when they had to make a third-quarter break that finally yielded a 55-36 semifinal victory over fourth-seeded Moreno Valley Canyon Springs.
The score belied the battle, and carrying the No. 1 banner for the better part of the year has not been easy on Orange County's most prolific program.
"It's been tougher than I thought," said Brea coach Jeff Sink, who took over the program following the 1993-94 season in which it went undefeated and was named mythical national champion. "It's an onerous responsibility because everyone brings their best game against you, and we've been flat the last couple of weeks.
"I'm amazed by the responsibility of being No. 1."
Canyon Springs coach Gail Hale said her team didn't bring its best game. Nevertheless, it overcame a 13-4 deficit to take the lead, 17-16. Although the Cougars were in the game at the half, trailing 19-18, Brea's Jeanier Olukemi scored seven points in the first three minutes of the third quarter to give the Ladycats a 26-21 lead. The breathing room was just the tonic they needed.
'It was a momentum-turner," Hale said of Olukemi's string of baskets, scoring twice inside, hiting a free throw, and showing her quickness on a coast-to-coast layup. "She gave them a jump start, willing her team to win."
Olukemi scored a game-high 15 points before fouling out with 50 seconds remaining.
"Jeanier is fun to watch, she's as athletic as any player I've coached," Sink said. "She has the ability to break open a game, score in bunches. I've seen her do that over and over. At that point, we took a deep breath and realized we could probably win the game if we played defense."
Justine Hartman closed the quarter with four of her six points, an eight-footer off the glass and a 15-footer to make it 36-29. The outcome was never contested after that.
Olukemi's performance was similar to her performance against Corona Santiago, when she scored six points in the final 1:29 of a 58-56 victory.
Kietra Wallace scored nine and point guard Alexis Perry scored seven and had 12 rebounds. Jasmine Sauser, in her first start of the season, scored eight, though her real value was as a defender on Tear'a Laudermill; she held her to 13 points.
Sink said the defense by Brea was as good as it has been this season. Canyon Springs seemed to be in position to take several good shots, but couldn't finish.
Hale credited Brea with playing smart.
"They run their offense, they're patient, they wait for the right look, they wait for the right kid to get the ball—they're like a machine," Hale said.
The machine revs up again on Friday, where the target will once again be clearly visible.