Santaluces defeats Wellington to clinch first berth in regional final

This year’s Chiefs are going where no Santaluces girls basketball team has gone before.

Santaluces clinched a spot in the Class 9A regional finals — one win away from a trip to Lakeland for the state playoffs —with a 56-51 win over Wellington on Tuesday night.

“This is school history,” Chiefs coach Zoe Price said. “They’ve never made it past the Sweet 16.”

Both Santaluces and Wellington came off upset victories to make it to the regional semifinals. Both teams were district runners-up, but the Chiefs beat Palm Beach Gardens and the Wolverines beat Boca Raton.

It looked like this game might have shades of Wellington’s win over Boca, with the Wolverines falling behind by double digits. The Chiefs led 40-27 in the third quarter. But, like it did against Boca, Wellington mounted a comeback, going on an 11-0 run to end the third quarter and taking the lead in the fourth.

“It was a little bit nerve-wracking, but the girls had composure,” Price said. “Every time we huddled, they were like, ‘We got this, coach.’ ”

Tuesday’s game, to a large extent, came down to a battle of the teams’ two senior stars: Santaluces’ Whitney Howell and Wellington’s Sydney Jones. Howell led Santaluces with 19 points, along with 26 rebounds, while Jones racked up 26 points. Seven of Jones’ points and five of Howell’s came in the fourth quarter as the two teams duked it out.

“She’s a really good player,” Howell said. “I expected it, coming into the game, but I think it was a good game. I think I did OK.”

Junior Emiah Downie was second for the Chiefs with 14 points, and senior Marie Vertus added nine. It was Vertus’ last four points that put the game away.

Santaluces led by one when Vertus was fouled while making a basket. She made the free throw for the traditional three-point play, extending the lead to four, then got fouled again and added another free throw to give the Chiefs their 56.

The Chiefs will play the winner of the Weston-Cypress Bay-Deerfield Beach game on Friday. The two Broward County teams play Wednesday night. In the meantime, Santaluces can enjoy making program history.

“Last spring, we had meetings with all of our returners, and we planted the seed of ‘We want to make school history,’ ” Price said. “Everyone kind of laughed, like, ‘Yeah, right, coach.’ And it’s cool to see those goals come to fruition this year.”

In other area regional games Tuesday night:

Oxbridge 60, Cardinal Newman 14: Nashani Gilbert-Taylor scored eight points, and Aaliyah Stanley added seven points, leading the ThunderWolves (24-5) to a victory over the Crusaders in the Class 5A regional semifinals in West Palm Beach.

Grandview Prep 31, Atlantic Christian 21: Britney Carver scored 11 points, including two 3-pointers, and grabbed five rebounds, and Jennifer Rodriguez added four points and four rebounds in a Class 2A regional finals matchup loss in Boca Raton. Atlantic Christian finished the season 13-7.

North Lauderdale-Somerset Prep 60, Lake Worth Christian 42: Jillian Schenk had 17 points, Riley Mizell added 11 points and JodiBeth Elardo contributed five points as the Defenders fell in a regional 3A championship matchup in Boynton Beach. Tyesha Battle scored 15 points for the Hurricanes.

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