Lily Reeser clutched the heavy championship trophy, almost like she couldn’t believe it was real. But the trophy is real and now it’s coming home after San Domenico became the first girls basketball team from Marin County to win a State Championship in 14 years.
“I feel fortunate to play with such an amazing group of girls,” said San Domenico’s Maja Cykowska, who stood tall with eight rebounds, two blocks and two points. “This has been an amazing season.”
The Panthers (24-11) made their first trip to the CIF State girls title game a memorable one as they rallied past Southern California champion Shalhevet, 38-27.
“I thought there was no way we’d be playing in this game in my sophomore year. I’m really shocked,” said Reeser, who scored a game-high 12 points, to go with three steals and two assists.
Reeser’s sentiments echo what her teammates have been saying all week: No one expected the Panthers to be champions this year. They surprised all their doubters — and themselves..
The Panthers celebrated at midcourt after the final buzzer in front of a large and vocal San Domenico cheering section. The tiny private school sent four busses to Sacramento carrying the team and its fans, who filled the arena with shouts of “We are SD!”
“We have so much support from our community,” said Panthers sophomore Summer Jenkins, who finished with four points, four assists and a block. “I wouldn’t want to play at any other school.”
San Domenico head coach Mike Fulton has been to the pinnacle of California high school basketball before, with both boys and girls teams. His Branson School girls teams won the title in 2007 and 2008. He led the San Domenico boys team to the Northern California championship in 2020, but the State title was never played that season, due to the rising COVID-19 pandemic.
This trip to the championships was perhaps the most emotional for Fulton, who lost his father, legendary coach Larry Fulton, to COVID-19 in February.
“I know he was watching us today,” said Fulton, whose Panthers have been wearing special t-shirts to remember Larry Fulton. “He knew these girls and he loved them. He’d be really proud of them today.”
This year’s young San Domenico players, with only three upperclassmen on the girls roster, haven’t had much time together as a team. Fulton stepped into the head coaching role last year in a season cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic. The Panthers did a lot of growing up this season, especially in the face of adversity. The team dealt with injuries and COVID-19 during the season, but overcame those challenges.
“With such a young team, it really motivated me to be a better leader,” Reeser said.
The matinee championship game Friday featured two underdog teams from small private schools. Shalhevet recovered from a painful 82-24 loss to Pacifica Christian in the Southern Section Division IV semifinals. The Firehawks used that as motivation during the Southern California Division V Regionals, when — as the fourth seed — they upset the top two seeds in the tournament to win a spot in the State title game.
Both teams struggled at first to get comfortable with the NBA court at Golden 1 Center, home of the NBA’s Sacramento Kings. Shalhevet found its touch in the first quarter, but the Firehawks (23-7) took a serious hit when Yalee Schwartz went down in the first quarter with an injured ankle that kept her out the rest of the game. Without Schwartz’s scoring and defensive presence, Shalhevet lost some of its punch.
The Firehawks turned to Talia Tizabi (nine points, 11 rebounds), Talia Tibi (five points, five rebounds) and Arielle Grossman (six points, nine rebounds) to carry the load.
Meanwhile, the Panthers found their footing during a 7-0 run that staked them briefly to a two-point lead in the second quarter. The Firehawks got a 3-pointer from Adelle Grossman and a layup from Talia Tibi to take a 14-11 halftime lead.
The court tipped in San Domenico’s favor in the third quarter, as the Panthers went on another 7-0 run, this time to take a five-point lead, their biggest of the game to that point.
“I was just trying to get them to calm down in the first half,” Fulton said. “I knew we’d make a run, and we did. The role players kept us in the game and then that run in the third quarter was all from our defense. We got a couple key steals, a couple rebounds, and the girls went all the way to the hoop.”
San Domenico’s bench came up with seven points, as well as some crucial plays to hold off a determined Shalhevet squad.
“The role players really stepped up.” Fulton said. “Mina Swaim got a big rebound; Jillian Bizjack and Mattie Greenstone came up big, and Nayely Aguirre came up with a steal. They all played a great game.”
Noku Mukukula got the Panthers rolling in the second half with a long jumper. With the Panthers still trailing by two points, Piper Fleece nailed a 3-pointer then Maja Cykowska and Mukukula turned turnovers into easy layups for a 20-15 lead that they never surrendered.
“With Summer (Jenkins) and Maja (Cykowska) both out with foul trouble, I took it as a challenge personally,” Reeser said. “That third-quarter run was a big deal. We all huddled up and got locked in. We said, this is the last game for our seniors and we’re going to make sure we win for them.”
Mukukula finished with seven points and six rebounds, Avery Conklin added seven points and four rebounds, and Fleece scored six big points for the Panthers.
The Panthers scored 14 points off turnovers, including key back-to-back plays by Reeser and Jenkins in the fourth quarter that secured the win. Reeser took advantage of a momentary lapse by the Firehawks to steal the ball and take it to the hoop. About a minute later, Jenkins did the same thing for a 34-27 Panthers lead with 2:11 left to play.
After that, Shalhevet forced the Panthers to shoot from the free-throw line, hoping to get the ball back and make a final run, but that hope soon faded.
For the Panthers, the only thing left to do was to celebrate the good times on the bus ride home.
“I’m really happy, I never thought I’d have this opportunity,” Mukukula said. “It’s great to be a part of this team.”