SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- For three years, ARCO Arena has been a friend to the Long Beach Poly girl's basketball program.
The Jackrabbits from Long Beach, Calif., have swept into Sacramento's arena each March with hype and star players, building a tradition as a California powerhouse while dominating the state's top division by an average of 16 points.
But just being the squad from No. 34 Long Beach Poly doesn't guarantee a CIF Division I championship. It only promises the hype associated with the program will continue to grow. This year, that hype almost did the Jackrabbits in.
"They weren't going to just say 'OK, (Poly's) going to come out playing, so we're just going to let them win'," senior Kelli Thompson said. "I think that as soon as we came out (from halftime), we finally realized that they weren't going to back down."
Up by two at halftime, the Jackrabbits turned on the typical Poly moves in the second half, extending their impressive Division I streak to a record-breaking four consecutive titles with a 57-33 win against Monte Vista (Danville, Calif.). The game wraps up a weekend of CIF championships in Sacramento.
For Thompson, the only senior of Poly's five who played in all four state championship games, this one was special. She missed eight weeks -- what she called the longest eight weeks of her life -- with a broken left hand, returning to the court two weeks ago with a soft brace. She returned in time for the loss to Cajon then helped Poly into a five-game winning streak to close the season, similar to her freshman year, when the Jackrabbits lost the section title then went on to win CIF.
"I've grown up watching Poly," Thompson said. "I knew the tradition before I even got here. ... Honestly, in my eyes, I think this year is the best team that I've played on in my last four years. Not just talent-wise ... It's kind of been up and down, but I wouldn't have traded this team for anything."
The chemistry among the Poly squad was apparent during the postgame press conference, where the girls spent nearly as much time laughing as they did answering questions, another trademark of this year's team. Even with five seniors bidding their teammates farewell as graduation looms, there were no tears, only hugs, laughter and ear-to-ear grins from the starters down through the bench.
The statistics from Saturday's win were spread out in similar fashion. Nine players scored at least one bucket for the Jackrabbits, led by junior Ta'nitra Byrd's 12 points from the bench. Monique Oliver, headed to USC next season, added 10 and seven rebounds, while Thompson, headed to UNLV, had two points in her final Poly game.
Niveen Rasheed, the Mustangs' Princeton-bound senior, led her team with 16 points and eight rebounds.
"They were bigger and stronger," Monte Vista coach Ron Hirschman said. "That's a tough combination to fight through. ... But we never back down from a challenge. We played a great first half and were still down two."
The Mustangs' first-half zone defense was part of the Jackrabbits' problem, giving Poly trouble finding the open player. Poly coach Carl Buggs credited the Mustangs with a smart defensive plan.
"They defended us the way I would defend us," Buggs said. "We just stepped up our game in the second half."
After scoring 19 points in the first half, Poly scored 19 points in each of the final two quarters.
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Mindi Rice is a National High School / ESPN HoopGurlz staff writer. She previously was an award-winning sportswriter at the Tacoma News Tribune. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.