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Sacred Heart Cathedral girls nearly unseat defending state champion

Sacred Heart Cathedral guard Reza Po (20) pulls up for a shot during the first quarter of the Fightin’ Irish’s 60-55 loss to Salesian in a non-league basketball game in Richmond on Dec. 13, 2022. | Ethan Kassel/The Standard

In a vacuum, Sacred Heart Cathedral’s 60-55 loss to Salesian was a frustrating one.

The Fightin’ Irish were out-rebounded 51-31 by a larger and more physical opponent, missed a few late shots and were on the receiving end of some calls that drew the frustration of head coach Demetrius Jackson.

Compare Wednesday night’s game with where the SHC girls program was a year ago, and the perspective is completely different.

Sacred Heart Cathedral fell to 8-1 with Wednesday’s five-point loss to the defending Division I state champions, a team that beat the Fightin’ Irish 75-27 a year earlier.

“These ladies came in to win tonight, and they competed to the final buzzer,” Jackson said. “I can’t ask for anything more than that.”

With a veteran core supplanted by the return of Inez Gallegos from injury, the Fightin’ Irish have a similar roster to last year, but are generating completely different results. They won Marin Catholic’s LadyCat Classic to open the month, beating San Ramon Valley, Acalanes and Central-Fresno. Central had beaten St. Ignatius and the tournament hosts to reach the championship game. SHC followed that up with an 18-point win over Palo Alto last Thursday, and added a convincing 64-37 win over Lowell on Saturday.

Sacred Heart Cathedral head coach Demetrius Jackson watches his team during the Fightin' Irish's 60-55 loss to Salesian in a non-league basketball game in Richmond on Dec. 13, 2022. | Ethan Kassel/The Standard

“As naive as it may sound, I thought we could compete like this,” Jackson said. “We believe we can win every game.”

Facing a Salesian team that boasts a pair of Division I commits in Eryn Gardner (Coppin State) and Makiah Asidanya (UNC Greensboro), the Irish finally met their match. They trailed 36-24 at halftime, but opened the third quarter on a 10-2 run to get within four on a Reza Po 3-pointer.

Po, the smallest player on the floor, led all players with 18 points and six assists. Madison Eade scored nine, while Gallegos finished with eight points and nine rebounds. Leilani Blecha scored all of her eight in the second half, including a 3-pointer to cut the lead to 45-40.

“There isn’t much of a difference other than that we’re a year older,” Jackson said when asked what the difference was between last year’s 9-16 team and the current group. “Our growth and our development has been as a team.”

Malea Scobie’s basket cut the Salesian lead to 49-46 with 4:23 left, but a Gardner basket and Sofia Fidelus putback put the Pride up by seven. Eade’s long jumper was only a 2-pointer as her foot was on the line, making the deficit 56-52, and the Irish missed a pair of shots in the final 90 seconds that would have made it a one-possession game.

Gardner led the hosts with 15 points and 11 rebounds. Asidanya scored 13 and Fidelus finished with 10 points, seven rebounds and five assists. D’yani Bernstine finished with 10 points and 14 rebounds, and Nyana Asiasi scored nine off the bench.

Countering Gardner, Bernstine and Asiasi’s physicality will be necessary if the Fightin’ Irish are going to unseat a state champion like Salesian. Po and Blecha showed that they have the skill at the guard positions to compete with some of the Bay Area’s best, something that Jackson and his players believe is completely doable.

Considering where they were a year ago, competing with a team of Salesian’s caliber is a pretty big step forward.