During the first half of the biggest game of her young life, Sarah Bates scored zero points.
Bates didn’t even attempt a shot. The atmosphere at sparkling, state-of-the-art Golden 1 Center for the CIF Girls Open Division championship was electric, but Bates felt unplugged and out of sorts.
“I had an awful first half,” the Clovis West High guard said afterward. “It was so bad.”
So bad that teammate Danae Marquez, the Golden Eagles’ point guard and floor leader, pulled Bates aside in the locker room and undressed her.
Undressed her verbally, that is.
“I told her, ‘Dude, get your head in the game. We need you in order to win this,’ ” Marquez said. “Sarah makes big plays in big moments. That’s just how it is.”
Which is how Bates will always be remembered by the Clovis West faithful.
Marquez’s verbal slap didn’t take instantaneous effect. Bates scored one point in the third quarter and missed two open 3s to begin the fourth. But once the UC Santa Barbara-bound senior scored her first bucket, off a 60-foot inbounds pass air mailed by Marquez, it was as if someone opened the spillway at nearby Folsom Lake.
Powered by Bates’ 11 straight fourth-quarter points, Clovis West surged from behind to stun Archbishop Mitty-San Jose 44-40 on Saturday night and bring the state hardware to the central San Joaquin Valley.
“I’m so excited – honestly it doesn’t feel real,” said Bates, the only Golden Eagle to score in double figures in what was a poor-shooting, low-scoring tussle between the state’s two highest-ranked girls basketball teams.
“I was crying after the game. Coming from the Valley, no one’s ever done this in the Open Division. We brought it back for each other.”
With 5:39 remaining and Clovis West down 37-30, Craig Campbell called timeout. The Golden Eagles coach diagrammed a play on his dry-erase board, but what he really wanted was to wipe the slate clean.
Campbell hardly recognized the young women in black uniforms, several of whom he’s coached (in AAU) since the fourth grade. What happened to the usual flow, the loosey goosey confidence? They were tighter than Charlie Watts’ snare drum.
“I really laid into them,” Campbell said. “ ‘We’re not supposed to be here. Why are you trying not to lose?’ ”
The play that got Bates rolling, ignited Clovis West’s comeback and brought the arena to life required no words at all.
Simply a held-up fist.
Noticing that Mitty’s commitment to denying a baseline inbounds pass with no safety behind, Campbell used hand signals instructing Marquez to go over the top. Bates got the nod from Marquez and darted past halfcourt, where Marquez lead her in perfect stride.
“That’s why we have Sarah there, to take advantage of her speed,” Campbell said.
“Once I delivered the ball,” Marquez said, “I knew she was going to make the layup.”
The layup was only part of it. Bates also drew a foul and converted the three-point play that sliced Clovis West’s deficit to four. It was all the spark Bates needed. She then hit back-to-back 3s, the second of which put the Golden Eagles ahead 39-37, before teaming with Marquez for another length-of-the-court layup.
Clovis West closed the game on a 14-3 scoring run with Bates scoring 11 of them.
“I just realized I needed to hit some clutch shots,” she said. “It was like, ‘Do it!’ ”
“Sarah’s always been a gamer,” Campbell added. “The bigger the moment, the better she plays.”
The moments don’t get any bigger, at least not in high school basketball. And maybe now’s a good time to take a step back and appreciate the magnitude of this accomplishment.
Central Section schools aren’t supposed to win Open Division championships. (Heck, public schools aren’t supposed to win them, either.) This is the domain of wealthy private schools and athletic factories from California’s major urban areas: Mater Dei-Santa Ana, Bishop O’Dowd-Oakland, Long Beach Poly – not Clovis West of Fresno.
“The private schools and consistent state- and national-level teams, they’re in there year in year out,” Campbell said. “We’re the ones that crashed the party.”
It might be hard for Fresno-area ears to appreciate those words because around here the Golden Eagles are the juggernaut. They’ve won five straight section titles, the last one by 32 points against the No. 2 team, and inspired more than a few critics who don’t appreciate the lopsided scores or some of Campbell’s methods.
Even though I’ve both praised and defended Clovis West and Campbell in the past, a couple examples make me a little uneasy. Such as how he’ll sit a player, on the spot, for what seems like a minor mistake. Or how he denied an opponent’s request for a running clock (with the Golden Eagles up 60 before half) by telling the refs “We have things to work on.”
“We never coach to the scoreboard – it’s about playing to our expectation level,” Campbell said. “People in the stands aren’t at practice every day. Our kids understand the expectation level, and they embrace the expectation level.”
Kids like Marquez, one of five seniors bound for Division-I programs.
“People hate on us and I’m not really sure why sometimes, ’cause we don’t talk trash and we don’t play cheap,” she said. “We’re just a hard-nosed program with a hard-nosed coach, and we do it at the highest level possible.
“Some people hate, but they’re not a part of it. They don’t understand the commitment. If you’re not part of the program, you don’t understand how deep we go.”
Without that depth, there’s no way to reach these heights.
Precisely what it takes for a public school like Clovis West, which not long ago was getting blown out in the regional level, to withstand the Open Division. And for players like Bates to score 11 straight points, seemingly out of nowhere, with her team trailing in the fourth quarter of the state championship game.
“I know how to hit some clutch shots,” Bates said.
She certainly does.