By Nick Giannandrea
The stakes will be high and plentiful when state community college women's basketball powers College of the Sequoias and Merced collide Wednesday at Porter Field House.
Early control in the Central Valley Conference title chase, winning streaks of 10-plus games and crucial playoff resume fodder are going to be on the line when the state No. 4-ranked Giants (17-2 overall, 2-0 in the conference) host the No. 3 Blue Devils (16-2, 2-0) in a game set to tip off at 6 p.m.
COS, which has won 14 straight games, and Merced, winners of 11 in a row, are tied with Reedley atop the CVC.
"It will be good to get another big game and get that experience for our team," Giants coach Ray Alvarado said. "Merced will be a big challenge. They are a good team."
Only No. 1 Diablo Valley and No. 2 Moorpark sit ahead of COS and Merced in the California Community College Women's Basketball Coaches' Association state Top 20. The Giants are working toward a seventh straight appearance in the state playoffs, where they have reached the Elite Eight in three of the past four seasons.
"The way the JC system works, if you don't play big games, win or lose, you're not going to make the playoffs," Alvarado said. "And if you do lose, you are going on the road. This gives us a type of Elite Eight type of game in mid-season, which is great for us."
Merced handed COS one of its two losses, on a neutral court, early in the season. Riding 23 points and four rebounds from Suzuna Shoji, the Blue Devils jumped out to a nine-point lead in the first half and held on for a 76-68 victory Nov. 4 during the San Joaquin Delta Tournament in Stockton.
The Giants would lose to No. 9 Pasadena City, 54-52, on Nov. 9 at the Pasadena City College Classic before hitting their stride over the past 14 games, including wins over No. 13 Ventura (61-48 on Dec. 1), No. 12 Sacramento City (71-66 on Dec. 2) and No. 16 Chabot (69-64 on Jan. 4).
The Blue Devils haven't lost since dropping consecutive games to Diablo Valley (85-62) in the final of the Merced Tournament on Nov. 10 and Moorpark (71-55) in the opener of the Santa Ana Tournament on Nov. 29. Since then, Merced has resume-boosting victories over No. 9 Pasadena and No. 12 Sacramento City, coupled with an earlier win against No. 10 Delta.
The Blue Devils have been led by 5-foot-7 freshman point guard Malaya Kendrick, who averages 16.9 points, 9.2 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game. Freshman guard Shoji (14.8), sophomore guard Ayaka Nakashima (10.7), freshman guard Hope Salsig (8.8), freshman post Jada Johnson (8.5) and sophomore guard Ashley Hansen (8.5) all average at least 8 points a game for Merced.
"We're a better team now, and Merced is a better team now," Alvarado said. "I don't look at the last game as anything other than a game we lost. We have to play a high level of basketball to win this time. The main thing is to take care of how we play, work hard and play our own style of basketball."
Sumilong, the former Hanford High star who transferred from Reno, has started to come on after working through a high ankle sprain early in the season. Sumilong averaged 11 points through COS' first six games but has been scoring at a 14.6-points-per-game clip since. She scored nine points on 2 of 7 shooting from the field during COS' first clash with Merced.
Sophomore guard Hailey Scott (9.2 points, 8.8 rebounds), sophomore guard Dejanee Gill (7.8 points, 6.5 rebounds), freshman guard Alaysia Reed (6.4 points, 5.0 rebounds, 3.2 assists) and sophomore guard Julianna Gutierrez (6.5 points) have also been key contributors.
"I think we're playing pretty good," Alvarado said. "We've been pretty unselfish, we're moving the ball better and playing better team defense. I feel pretty confident our team will be ready to play. We've been on a nice little run, now we're got to keep it going."
Alvarado is hoping for a big crowd to support the Giants in their biggest home game of the season. Tickets will be available at the door for $5.
COS will play at Merced on Feb. 9 in a game that will tip off at 5 p.m.