- Clay Kallam
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Chiney Ogwumike said, "I've never played a team that played like that," after her Cy-Fair Shock Nike Elite I had finished with the Cal Sparks Gold at the End of the Oregon Trail Tournament -- and that, of course, is one of the reasons summer basketball is so much fun.
In fact, a lot of Tuesday's action in Oregon City featured intra-regional matchups. Giving West Coast teams and players an opportunity to prove that the widely held belief that the East is the beast in women's basketball was at least an exaggeration, if not flat-out wrong.
Unfortunately, it didn't quite play out that way. Cy-Fair's come-from-behind win over the Cal Sparks Gold -- which featured several players from California high school power Long Beach Poly -- was just one of several results that did nothing to improve the Left Coast's reputation.
Colorado's Mile High Gold thumped a pair of Pacific teams (Category 5 from Seattle and the Bay Area Warriors from, not surprisingly, the San Francisco Bay Area), and New Heights out of New York and New Jersey outlasted a game NorCal Elite team (from, not surprisingly, Northern California) early in the day, despite the best efforts of Afure Jemerigbe (2010).
The Warriors, though, did salvage some Bay pride by upsetting North Tartan of Minnesota -- and its four Big 10 commits -- to get to the Gold bracket finals, and the East Bay Xplosion, another Bay Area team, surprised the Boulder Rockies in the Silver division semis. That set up an all-California final that the Pacific teams couldn't lose, and West Coast Premier, led by the best defensive backcourt in the country -- Eliza Pierre (2009) and Kiyana Stamps (2009)-- wore down EBX to advance to the first game of the four-team playoff that will determine the overall End of the Trail champion.
Cal Swish Black #1 also moved on, surviving a football game without pads in what the scoreboard would say was an "easy" win over New Heights. But despite the final margin, Cal Swish has the bruises to prove that even a rare win over an East Coast team didn't come without a cost. In fact, if not for Kelsey Harris (2010) catching fire from beyond the arc, this one would have been even an tougher test for the Southern Californians.
The biggest test, though, came in the Cy-Fair vs. Cal Sparks Gold matchup in the semis of the Gold Division. The Sparks fell behind early, but quickly righted themselves. They built a 10-point lead just before halftime, and were coasting along with a six- to eight-point lead when Ogwumike, a rising junior, simply took over the game midway through the second half. After drawing a fourth foul on 6-foot-4 Cierra Warren with 13:15 left, Ogwumike stole an entry pass and finished at the other end to make it 33-32. Monique Smalls (who finished with 10) hit the 3 that put the Texans up for good and when Ogwumike powered in a follow shot, and drew another foul, with 5:43 to go, the Sparks were all but extinguished.
"We started to push the ball and things fell into place," said Ogwumike, but she was puzzled by her team's up-and-down play. "It almost felt like a morning game."
"She really put the team on her shoulders," coach Rob Amboree said afterward about Ogwumike, who wound up scoring 14 of her game-high 21 points in the second half.
Ogwumike did all that while wearing a mask to protect a nose she broke in the Texas state playoffs -- and then re-injured at the USA Basketball U18 trials in June.
"Sometimes I don't play with the mask, but my nose got bumped in the first game here. I'm going to wear it the rest of the summer season," she said.
Even though it's the second mask she's tried, it's still not perfect. Against the Sparks, she was dribbling downcourt with her right hand and adjusting the clear plastic with her left, but of course didn't turn the ball over. In fact, she made very few mistakes and more than a few outstanding plays to cast Cy-Fair in the favorite's role on Wednesday.
There are two California teams left, though, and it's possible both could win and face each other in the finals -- but then again, if both lose Wednesday morning, in their own time zone, it will be even harder for Pacific Coast fans to make any sort of claim that the West is really better than people think.
Clay Kallam is a contributor to ESPN HoopGurlz. He is the founder of Full Court Press, an online magazine devoted to women's basketball; the author of "Girls Basketball: Building a Winning Program" and a voter for several national awards, including McDonald's and Parade All-Americans and the Wooden Award.