SANTA CLARITA — The last time the No. 4 Westmont women’s basketball team faced off against No. 2 The Master’s, things did not go as planned.
In that Jan. 18 contest, the Warriors knew they had to stop the Mustangs’ Stephanie Soares to earn a victory. Instead, the sophomore had her way at Murichson Gymnasium, scoring 25 points and collecting a season-high 24 rebounds in a Mustangs win.
Saturday night at The MacArthur Center in Santa Clarita, it was Westmont who had its way against The Master’s.
The Warriors held Soares in check, played with more physicality and used a huge fourth-quarter run to defeat the Mustangs 56-44 and take control of their own destiny.
With the win, Westmont (23-3, 15-1) leapfrogged The Master’s (26-2, 14-2) to sit at first place in the Golden State Athletic Conference standings. With two games remaining, one win would give the Warriors at least a share of the GSAC regular-season championship while two would give them the outright title.
“If I think back to the beginning of the season, we lose our best rebounder in the first game, we go on the road and lose by 20, and we are just trying to figure it all out, the injuries, everything and in a way that really unified this team,” Westmont coach Kirsten Moore said.
“They found their identity and they are going to scrap and fight and adjust. Even though our average height is 5-5, we got bigger hearts than that and you saw that out there on the court for sure.”
Iyree Jarrett, who last week delivered the Warriors a win with a game-winning layup, again came up huge in the final 10 minutes for her team.
The junior guard scored 10 of her 18 points in the fourth quarter, as Westmont turned a 36-33 third-quarter lead into a 56-44 final score victory. Jarrett was 2-for-3 from deep in the fourth.
“From the start, our goal is to fight the full 40 minutes and when it came to the fourth quarter, we didn’t want to let up,” Jarrett told the News-Press after the game.
“Our goal in the fourth is to attack from all places and so it was really helpful that I exploited the inside from the high post which opened up the perimeter.”
Asked about the confidence the coaching staff has in Jarrett to take over in the fourth, Moore responded: “We have a lot of trust in her with the ball in her hands for sure.
“She’s really just a dynamic player. She can score on the inside, from the perimeter, and she just creates opportunities for her teammates.”
Defensively, Westmont was all over Soares. The sophomore finished with just nine points on 3-of-11 shooting from the floor and had 15 rebounds.
Four minutes into the contest, Soares was visibly frustrated with how physical Westmont’s defenders were being on the boards and in the post.
Leading 11-8 after the first quarter, the Warriors used a 9-0 run to open up the second period and extend their lead to 12 points with just over seven minutes remaining. Soares was subbed out for the remainder of the half at that point, as she had just two points and six rebounds on 1-for-7 shooting.
“A big adjustment that we did was just to put a lot more pressure on her and so our post players did a really great job on her. Yeah, she’s very tall but they just used their physicality and their toughness to get in her head,” senior guard Maud Ranger said.
During the 9-0 run, it was sophomore guard Stefanie Berberabe who made key hustle plays, collecting two steals and converting those into easy layups.
Berberabe also knocked down a number of mid-range shots that opened up the floor on her way to scoring 18 points in the Westmont win.
“I really just wanted to utilize my super gritty style of play tonight. Those steals were huge momentum builders for us,” Berberabe said.
“I’m usually a driver but this week I’ve been just working on my jumper and my coaches were, telling me ‘look to shoot’ and just being aggressive and it’s great it worked.”
Ranger herself also played a huge factor for the Warriors Saturday night.
The senior played just 24 minutes in the first contest against The Master’s but on Saturday, she was the only player on the floor for either side to go the full 40 minutes.
She made the most of her time on the floor as well, collecting a team-high 10 boards while scoring a timely seven points.
“I feel really good right now. Tomorrow, probably not so much, but right now I am just kind of on a high,” Ranger said with a wide smile on her face.
“Defense and rebounding were really the keys for us tonight and I knew last time I couldn’t give it my all so I wanted to focus on my rebounding and it wasn’t just me, everyone played great.”
With a 20-8 lead and with Soares on the bench, it seemed like the perfect time for Westmont to run away with the game.
Instead, the Mustangs answered back with an 8-0 run to get back within four. Junior forward Anika Neuman was a big factor during that run, scoring six straight points. She finished with a team-high 17 points.
The Warriors answered back with a layup and would take a 25-18 lead into the break. In the third quarter, The Master’s woke up, knocking down 7-of-12 shots in the quarter with eight points coming from Neuman.
The Mustangs had two chances in the third period to take the lead, but both times failed to do so. On the ensuing trip, the Warriors would add to their lead and would eventually take a three-point lead into the fourth.
In the final period, Jarrett opened up the frame with five quick points to give Westmont a 41-33 lead. After a Sabrina Thompson three cut the Warriors lead to just three, Jarrett again scored five straight to extend the lead back to eight.
From there, Westmont scored eight of the final 12 points to win by double-digits, exact its revenge on The Master’s and move into first place.
“We have been through so much this year so this is just such a good feeling for us. We just want to keep this momentum up. It’s March, this is the time you want that momentum,” Ranger, the team’s lone senior said.
“Now we just have to make sure we host the tournament and focus on winning these next two games. This year is so special and I have confidence in us (heading into the postseason) but right now, it’s one game at a time.”