LA North, LA South: St. Joseph 54, Gardena Serra 45

LOS ANGELES – After frittering away most of a 16-point lead in the second half, Santa Maria St. Joseph needed something, anything, to stave off the tide that had turned against them.

Alyson Beebe provided that something. As the shot clock expired, Beebe dropped an eight-foot baseline jumper that might as well have been an ax to the gullet. Her basket with 2 minutes 10 seconds remaining bumped the lead back to five points and helped St. Joseph beat Gardena Serra, 54-45, to win the Southern California Regional Division III championship Saturday at the Galen Center.

The victory by the Knights (28-6) sends them to the State Championship game Saturday, 1 p.m., at Arco Arena. They will face Oakland Bishop O'Dowd, a 57-46 winner over Sacramento. It will be St. Joseph’s third appearance in the finals; it lost in 1990, but won in overtime in 1991.

Two weeks ago, St. Joseph had been out-rebounded badly and been victimized by Siera Thompson’s 28 points in a 66-58 loss to Serra (29-6) in the Southern Section Division 3-AA finals. This time, Thompson scored only five. Bria Richardson led Serra with 15 points.

Beebe, a 6-foot-3 junior and one of the top age-group players in the country, scored 17, grabbed 15 rebounds, blocked four shots and had two assists as her team won for the 14th time in 15 games. Heather Madrigal scored 15 and Kelsi English 11.

Serra had a 12-11 lead early, had fallen behind 31-15, and then closed to 46-43. That’s when Beebe hit her monster basket. “The bench started counting down, 10, 9, and I got nervous,” she said. “I was open. It felt good.”

The moment wasn’t lost on Ed Torres, who was coach of St. Joseph the last time it was in the state finals.

“That’s probably the most important shot of the year,” he said.