By Joe Davidson
Growing pains. That's what the Florin Panthers girls basketball team endured in recent years, from a winless wreck trying to grasp the game three seasons ago to respectability to now - a milestone moment Thursday night against one of the power programs in the Sac-Joaquin Section.
Seeded fourth in the Division II field, Florin played with energy, precision and patience - and it was poised beyond its years down the stretch in taking down No. 5 Del Oro 58-46 in a second-round playoff game in South Sacramento.
Panthers players and coaches rave about how the club has come together. Despite some moments of bickering, they are beloved to one another.
"Oh, we're sisters and we clash, but we're close and we've formed a bond," junior guard Deja Conger said proudly. "Team work, working as a unit, it all came together in the fourth quarter."
Del Oro, with scores of playoff victories over the years and a NorCal finalist a year ago, was ready to pounce on the Panthers down the stretch, but Florin (24-5) would have none of it. A Conger three-pointer gave Florin a 47-41 lead with 2:40 to go, then her zip pass 40 seconds later to Daijah Joe-Smith extended it to 49-43. From there, the Panthers coolly made 9 of 10 free throws to record the program's most significant victory since the Shannon Gasper-coached teams of 1996 and '97 that reached the section D-I finals.
Joe-Smith, a quick forward, had a terrific all-around game. She had 22 points, 13 rebounds and seven steals. Jordyn cq Bell powered inside for 13 points and 10 rebounds, and fellow forward Dalayna Sampton had eight and 10. Guard Kynnidi cq Ricardo had 10 points and provided six assists. For Del Oro (18-11), Brianna Ruiz had 12 points and eight rebounds and Jessica Hinsken had 11 points.
Florin coach Larry Price stood as a proud papa - make that a bear of a man proud papa. He endured the winless season and he promised better days were ahead. That time is now. There are no seniors in the main rotation, so the momentum is sure to carry into next season. The Panthers were exceptional in moving the ball, playing a 2-3 zone and crashing the boards.
"It's a joy to coach this team, to be around them, to see them grow and come together like this," Price said.
Now the ultimate challenge looms in the semifinals Tuesday at Pacific: National power St. Mary's of Stockton, winners of 12 section titles and seven state titles.
The Rams blitzed Florin in the second round last season 77-32. This time, Price, Conger and the crew plan to convince the school band that stood loud, proud and 30 strong against Del Oro to head to Pacific and park close to the St. Mary's bench.
"We're bringing the band!" Price promised. "We know St. Mary's has a great team. Sac High is an elite team and we've experienced that, so we know we won't fall apart and collapse. We'll compete."
Del Oro coach Mike Takayama said his program will regroup and return with the bulk of the roster returning. The JV team also fared well and the freshman team went 22-0. For now, the classy coach praised Florin.
"We had it all set up to make a run in the fourth but Florin was more poised than we were," Takayama said. "What a fantastic year for them, and Price has done a great job."
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