By MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS
Rafu Staff Writer
It was nearly a full year ago that Kristen Chikami stood dejected, staring at the gymnasium floor in disgust, after her Troy Warriors were eliminated from the CIF Southern Section playoffs. Saturday in Corona, there she was again, pondering the hardwood as the opposing team celebrated around her.
And like last year, Troy has to feel that they are their own worst enemy, as they were beaten in the Div. I-AA semifinals by a solid but not overpowering Santiago Sharks team, 56-51.
It’s little consolation that Troy is not done for the season, having already earned a berth to the State tournament, because this one was fully within reach. Like last year’s ouster, Saturday’s loss began and ended at the free throw line.
In an otherwise superbly played game, Troy missed 17 of their 22 free throw attempts. Combined with the potent three-point shooting of sisters Jasmine and Cinnamon Lister, Santiago sank 14 of their 18 shots from the line. In short, the win was up for grabs by either of the two well-matched teams.
Troy head coach Roger Anderson was as frustrated as his players after the loss.
“A one-point or two-point game is won or lost at the free throw line. We went 5-for-22, they win the five-point game, it’s as simple as that,” he said. “We just didn’t convert, there’s simply nothing else you can say. Obviously, if we shoot 65 percent, 60 percent, we win the game.”
Anderson said that good free throw shooting has been a key to Troy’s success this year, making Saturday’s loss all the more bitter. The Warriors have been in the 75-80 percent range from the line all season.
First period jitters seemed to settle in the second, when Troy managed to pull even with Santiago. The transition game was reborn in the second half, with speedy outlets and Warriors quickly getting into position on the offensive end, resulting in plenty of good looks.
Troy’s efficient offensive setups continued in the second half, but so did the trend of futility at the free throw line. After being fouled to set up a possible three-point play to pull to with a point, Chikami rimmed out her shot, which was recovered by the Sharks.
Stephanie Yano, who suffered through injuries for much of the season and still hasn’t regained full mobility, came into the game in late the third period and briefly energized Troy with two straight field goals. On defense, however, she was only able to play limited minutes, her range diminished by a still-healing ankle injury and for good measure, the flu. Yano finished with four points.
Steve Yano, Stephanie’s father, said her absence was definitely felt by the team.
“If she was mobile enough to play defense, I think it would have made the difference, he said. “They really needed her ball handling and her court presence, that would have helped quite a bit.”
Troy managed to pull ahead by a point midway into the fourth, but that’s when Jasmine Lister really began to heat up, hitting three of her five three-pointers and 13 of her 25 points in the final frame.
The Warriors closed the deficit to three with 30 seconds left, but the trading of free throws in the final seconds went Santiago’s way, as they made them all.
Yano was inconsolable after the loss, sobbing in the arms of Troy alum and former teammate Alysa Ito, who knows the heartbreak of elimination.
“I feel like I lost tonight, it’s hard to watch,” Ito said. “They could have won this game, making free throws, not turning the ball over. Little things can make the difference.”
Ito added that the crushing loss last year pushed them to refocus in the State tournament and that’s what this year’s Warriors need to do.
Chikami, who finished with 16 points, heaved a hefty sigh before pondering what Troy needs to do to prepare for State.
“Yeah, we just have to work hard this week and get ready for the next game,” she said. “We have to make our free throws, that’s what it comes down to, and we’ve been working on it in practice.”