Clutch plays, clutch victories have been a big part of the history of Pasadena City College women's basketball under head coach Joe Peron since he began directing the program in the 1996-1997 season. On Nov. 23, the Lancers added to that storied list when Merina Latu drained a 3-point bomb with 10 seconds left in overtime to give PCC a 60-59 victory over Merced and the Santa Ana Tournament championship.
PCC kept its undefeated season going at 7-0 by defeating a Merced program that reached the CCCAA State Championship semifinals last season. The Lancers, 10 years removed from their only state title in 2009, are trying to reach their first state tournament appearance since 2010. That season was the end of an amazing streak of seven straight appearances in the State Tournament (2004-2010).
Against the Blue Devils (6-3), PCC trailed 49-43 with four minutes left in the fourth quarter. The Lancers clawed back and sent it to OT at 49-49 on two free throws by Cosette Balmy with five seconds remaining. In the 5-minute overtime, Merced jumped back ahead at 58-53, but Balmy drained a trey with 19 seconds left and PCC was still behind 59-57. On the next possession, Balmy gunned a pass to Latu who sank the game-winning jumper with 10 seconds to go. Dariel Johnson capped the win by blocking a last-second shot.
Balmy nearly scored half of the Lancers points with 29 as she was named tourney MVP. The sophomore point guard added six assists and four steals. Johnson, a forward-center, was named to the All-SAC Tourney Team as well after totaling 10 points, nine rebounds and four blocks. Latu's three was her only basket of the game.
In the Santa Ana semifinals, PCC played Bakersfield for the second time this season and was much improved from a 51-50 win at the season-opening Bakersfield Crossover tourney by routing the Renegades, 66-42. Balmy scored 19 points and had five assists and five steals while Johnson added 10 points, 14 rebounds, and five blocks. Kristal Espinoza tallied 12 points. Pasadena outscored Bakersfield, 36-15, in the second half.
In the tourney opener, Espinoza, a freshman guard-forward, led the way with 19 points in a 61-41 win over Cosumnes River. Johnson did her usual superb job in the post with 12 points, 17 rebounds, seven assists, five steals and four blocks. Latu, a sophomore shooting guard, contributed five points, six steals and three assists.
"We have been very close to return to the state tournament in the last few years, reaching the third round or regional finals often," Peron said. "This team has a real opportunity to reach that goal. Winning that close one v. Merced is a step in the right direction as far as what it will take for us to go that far. We have a long season left, including the South Coast Conference race, so we will just take things one game at a time. We're off to a really good start."
PCC returns to the court on Wednesday, Dec. 4 when it hosts Irvine Valley in a 5 p.m., non-conference game at Hutto-Patterson Gymnasium.