CHANDLER, Ariz. -- To say that Jessica Duarte saved No. 2 Mater Dei's season may be an overstatement, but it's one that coach Kevin Kiernan's not afraid to make.
And it's not just because Duarte, a 5-foot-11 guard-forward, scored 23 points during the Monarch's attempt to unseat top-ranked St. Mary's (Stockton, Calif.). Instead, Duarte was in the right place doing the right things at the right time for the team from Santa Ana, Calif.
"I know what Kaleena (Mosqueda-Lewis)' going to do, I know what Jordan (Adams)'going to do," Kiernan said. "But Jessica Duarte, when Alexyz (Vaioletama) went down, she has saved our season. We wouldn't be here, in the finals and this game, without (Duarte)."
She also made sure that the Monarchs (10-0) would soon be carrying the weight of the ranking they've been waiting for since March. Behind Duarte's 23 and Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis' 27, Mater Dei unseated No. 1 St. Mary's 66-60 in Tuesday night's championship of the Joe Smith Bracket at the Nike Tournament of Champions.
"Inside, we all know that we were No. 1," Duarte said. "The rankings didn't matter until we could show everybody and today we had our chance."
The Monarchs wasted no time showing how they felt about the rankings, with a 13-0 run early and an impressive 26-10 lead at the end of the first quarter. But St. Mary's (6-1) defense got it back into the game, holding Mater Dei to six points in the second quarter and opening the second half with a 14-4 run. From there it was a back-and-forth battle as St. Mary's stars, led by senior Afure Jemerigbe's 17 points and two juniors, Kendall Kenyon and Ali Gibson, with 14 and 12, respectively, matched Duarte and Mosqueda-Lewis, who accounted for all but eight of Mater Dei's 34 second-half points.
Fittingly, Duarte hit the final free throws of the game with 11.7 seconds remaining, effectively sealing the win.
"(Duarte's) very versatile," Kiernan said. "(When Vaioletama returns), it would give us the luxury of having (Duarte) being able to play (Mosqueda-Lewis)' spot and the post player, that gives us a chance to rest (Mosqueda-Lewis) a little bit."
Vaioletama, a 6-1 junior, has missed the beginning of the season with stress fractures in her legs. With her, the Monarchs are three Olympians strong, as she, Adams and Mosqueda-Lewis were all members of the USA's U16 basketball team during the summer. Had Vaioletama been healthy to start the season, Duarte likely would have been the first off the bench instead of filling a starting spot. Instead, she's grabbing the rebounds and hitting shots, filling some big shoes within her team.
"I knew I would have my chance to play, and now it's here," Duarte said. "Their game has helped me and pushed me to where I need to be. I can step up to a role and be comfortable. I can hit shots I need to hit and rebound and do what I need to do."
Duarte showed no fear during the TOC's four games. Along the way to the bout between No.s 1 and 2, Mater Dei also handled Hillsboro (Nashville, Tenn.), Riverdale Baptist (Upper Marlboro, Md.) and No. 5 Long Beach Poly (Long Beach, Calif.), the reigning Division I champion in California. St. Mary's, the defending Division III champions, went wire to wire with No. 21 Norcross (Ga.), No. 9 Memphis Central (Memphis, Tenn.) and preseason No. 8 Brea Olinda (Brea, Calif.), which is missing arguably its best player.
"We gave it our all," Jemerigbe said. "Certain shots weren't falling, certain calls weren't getting called ... we just have to keep pushing. We'll try to win out and go undefeated from here."
The Rams won't get a chance at revenge, at least not this year, as this was the only week the two California squads appear in the same place, at least until both teams' hopeful appearances at ARCO Arena in Sacramento, Calif., for the California state championships. However, they'll have to decide if they want to support each other or just not watch the games, as St. Mary's is the defending Division III champion and Mater Dei is a Division II program.
The Monarchs, who knocked off two of the top California champions from a year ago, also have a chance to unseat rival and reigning Division II champion, Brea Olinda, in four weeks, when the teams battle in a charity game Jan. 18. One year ago, the Ladycats ended Mater Dei's season at 30-1 in the Southern Section championship on their way to winning the program's ninth state title.
"We're such a special group of girls," Duarte said. "We've had our adversities and we've overcome them. There are special bonds on this team, and we all get along well when we want to. ... When we focus and we want something, we get it done. We do whatever we need to do to get it done and I think tonight was a perfect example."
Follow us on Twitter, where you can ask questions and get instant updates.
Become a fan of the site on Facebook and get updates in your news stream.
Discuss this on our Message Board
Mindi Rice is an ESPN HoopGurlz staff writer. She previously was an award-winning sportswriter at the Tacoma News Tribune and a barista at Starbucks, and grew up in Seattle, where she attended Roosevelt High School before graduating from the University of Oregon with a degree in journalism. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.