Sleep Train Arena is a lot farther from Berkeley than El Dorado Hills.
But for perennial girls basketball power Berkeley High and senior star Rachel Howard, the NBA arena has become a nice home away from home.
Playing with collective poise and confidence, and led by Howard's 23 points and nine rebounds, the No. 12 Yellowjackets defeated No. 10 Oak Ridge 56-45 Saturday to win its third consecutive CIF Northern California Regional Division I girls championship.
It was Berkeley's 12th NorCal title in 16 championship-game appearances. No girls school, regardless of division, has won more NorCal titles.
It might have been a four-peat but for Oak Ridge's 52-42 defeat of the Yellowjackets (22-11) in the 2010 NorCal final. Oak Ridge (28-5) went on to upset Long Beach Poly for the state title, the school Berkeley will play on Friday for the state championship, again at Sleep Train Arena.
Oak Ridge had hoped that being near home after losing in the last two NorCal Regional games at Berkeley might fuel a repeat of that magical 2010 season.
Things looked good for a couple of minutes.
Nikki Dow scored on a drive and Ali Bettencourt hit back-to-back three-pointers to put the Trojans ahead 8-0 before everything fell apart.
Sparked by Howard, the Yellowjackets went on a 31-3 run before Bettencourt made four free throws to end the second quarter. They trailed 31-15 at the half, plagued by turnovers, anemic shooting and lack of aggression on the boards.
"I hate this word, but I used the word embarrassed in the first half," said Oak Ridge coach Steve White. "The girls responded in the second half and gave it everything they had....The bottom line is we've got to find a way to put together two halves against these guys."
Bettencourt, as she had throughout Oak Ridge's NorCal playoff run that included wins over the No. 2, No. 3 and No. 7 seeds, led her team with 17 points. Junior center Michelle Barkley added 10 points and 14 rebounds.
"Obviously Ali has been on in (NorCals) and hit some shots," White said. "Michelle altered shots, blocked shots, ripped down rebounds. She played an outstanding game."
As happens with a lot of teams that play in Sleep Train's expansive atmosphere, Oak Ridge struggled to make shots, especially three-pointers. They shot 29 percent from the floor and 11 of 20 from the foul line.
Berkeley didn't exactly light it up, either (38 percent shooting) except for Howard, a 5-10 wing, who made 9 of 16 shots from the floor, including three-of-four three-pointers, while also adding a game-high four steals.
It was the sixth time the USF verbal commit played at Sleep Train Arena, including two state title games.
"Yeah, it's like a second home, I guess, and I like the Kings," Howard quipped in the postgame press conference.
She left reporters in stitches when asked to respond to Berkeley's unusual No. 12 seed after finishing the regular season 17-11 and losing in the North Coast Section semifinals.
"Haters," she quipped. "But really I thought, 'OK, let's go.' It wasn't a big deal...I like being the underdogs."
She said Berkeley resolved to get better after a streak of losses that included a 65-57 overtime loss to Sac High in the West Coast Jamboree in December.
White also was impressed with Oak Ridge's resolve.
The Trojans played well early in the season, despite a slew of injuries, won the Delta River League title, then overcame a disappointing loss to rival Kennedy in the Sac-Joaquin Section semifinals to reach their second NorCal title game in school history.
Senior Lauren Liebert personified Oak Ridge's grit.
She overcame two ACL injuries to be a contributing player and finished her career with a three-pointer late.
"Nothing could top that," Liebert said before momentarily breaking down. "Just to be able to play again has been my dream."
Bee photo by Randall Benton: Trojans Michelle Barkley (14) struggles to control the ball during the NorCal Girls Division I championship game.