- Mindi Rice
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BEAVERTON, Ore. -- The Nike Northwest Invitational almost saw a repeat of 2007's upset special.
A year ago, Sacred Heart Cathedral knocked off then-No. 1 Long Beach Poly in the championship on its way to an eventual No. 1 ranking.
This year, top-ranked St. Mary's (Stockton, Calif.) -- which boasted a 33-1 record last season, losing only to Sacred Heart -- didn't want the same fate at the hands of a highly ranked team, like semifinal opponent Regis Jesuit (Aurora, Colo.), ranked No. 5 in the country.
The Rams eventually advanced to Saturday's championship with a 74-62 win, but the path through the No. 5 team wasn't easy.
"They just persevered," Rams coach Tom Gonsalves said of his team. "They just never let up, even when they were losing. They just kept their cool and composure."
It wasn't easy early, as Pepperdine signee T'Keyah Shealy, who had nine of her 14 in the second quarter, was part of Regis Jesuit's tall logjam that slowed the Rams.
Highly ranked juniors Chelsea Gray and Afure Jemerigbe, a talented duo of guards, also are St. Mary's' tallest players at 5-foot-11, while the 6-foot Shealy is one of eight Regis Jesuit players taller than the Rams' pair. The height gave Regis an advantage under the boards, but the tenacity of the Rams' guard-sized inside players kept them in the game.
After a three-point halftime lead, the Raiders opened up a nine-point lead twice in the game, including late in the third quarter, but they couldn't hold off the St. Mary's attack.
First, junior Annissa Garcia hit a jumper, then Jemerigbe got a free throw. Finally, as the last three seconds of the third quarter ticked away, Gray drove down the lane, past two defenders, and hit the ground at the same time her perfected shot swooshed through the net.
It was all the momentum the Rams needed, pouring on 27 points, including 13 from the line, in the fourth quarter. They held Regis to 12 points as three of the Raiders' top offensive threats fouled out in a 26-second span with more than four minutes remaining in the game.
"Our coach did a good job of keeping us from getting nervous or doing stuff out of character," said Gray, who finished with a game-high 26 points.
Jemerigbe added 15, and sophomore Ali Gibson scored 12 for the Rams, while seniors Mariah Williams, a UCLA signee, and Shealy led Regis, playing its third game in three days, with 14 apiece. The Raiders opened their season Wednesday against rival Mullen before traveling to Beaverton for the tournament, which started Thursday.
In the other semifinal, Kentwood (Wash.) beat Sacramento, 69-43, for the spot opposite St. Mary's in the 8:15 p.m. title game.
"Just making it to the championship game in a tournament with as great of teams [as this one] is definitely a compliment to our team," Kentwood coach Keith Hennig said. "I think having eight girls back this year, we were able to put things together a lot quicker."
Nebraska signee Lindsey Moore led the Conquerors with 29 points, including a perfect 17-of-17 from the line, as Sacramento was assessed a handful of technical fouls in the second half.
Sacramento faces Regis Jesuit for third place, but the Raiders know it is not over for them -- they may have another shot at St. Mary's. Both teams are on the top half of the bracket at the Nike Tournament of Champions, the top holiday tournament in the country, which tips off Dec. 18 in Chandler, Ariz.
"We're winning in the fourth quarter, and my three kids foul out," Regis coach Carl Mattei said. "We've got depth, but you can't lose three good Division I kids [while] they've still got their two best out there; that made it very difficult. But we'll get them again in two weeks.
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Mindi Rice is a staff writer for ESPN HoopGurlz. 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 email@example.com.