March 1, 2013_Anaheim_| Murrieta Valley girls basketball players celebrate in the waning moments of their CIF Southern Section Division II-A championship victory over Culver City on Friday afternoon at the Anaheim Convention Center.| Bill Wechter/ U-T San
ANAHEIM The Murrieta Valley High girls basketball program waited 23 years to have an opportunity for a section title.
It had no intention of letting it slip away.
Murrieta Valley used a balanced team effort Friday afternoon at the Anaheim Convention Center to defeat Culver City, 49-37, and capture the CIF Southern Section Division II-A championship.
“When we started this season, we wanted this,” Murrieta Valley senior Karen Wolf said. “You want to leave a legacy, and to be able to leave something like this behind is a great feeling.”
Wolf snagged 13 rebounds and scored 8 points.
The Nighthawks didn’t start out the season as a good free-throw shooting team, but their improvement may have been a key to their success at the end.
Murrieta Valley shot 81 percent from the line Friday, which included converting 8-of-10 free throws in the fourth quarter.
Head coach Scott Richards said it was a classic case of hard work paying off.
“These girls spent hours and hours and hours working on those free throws,” Richards said. “We talked early on about how we were going to win or lose games based on how well we shot from the line, and luckily it all started to come together in the postseason.”
Sophomore point guard Ariana Hernandez looked like a seasoned veteran, playing all 32 minutes while scoring 10 points.
Hernandez was a backup shooting guard last season and was named the team’s starting point guard just before the season started.
Richards said Hernandez’s progress has been amazing.
“She has shown so much poise and maturity, and that’s a rarity for someone her age,” Richards said. “Whenever she has the ball in (her) hands, I have total trust, and that is nice for a coach to be able to have”
Nerves were evident early for the Nighthawks as they committed five turnovers in the first quarter, but Hernandez’s early 3-pointer quickly settled her team, which finished the quarter on an 8-2 run.
“We were playing in a huge arena, this was a new experience, we had to calm ourselves down,” Hernandez said. “We were able to do that and just play Nighthawk basketball.”
Murrieta Valley saw a four-point lead dissipate in the second quarter, but an energetic finish to the first half swung momentum back in the Nighthawks’ favor.
A block from Wolf with less than a minute to play rallied up the Murrieta Valley bench and allowed Hernandez to keep the ball in her possession for 25 seconds before confidently nailing her second 3-pointer of the game.
Eight turnovers in the third quarter didn’t help Murrieta Valley’s cause, but it still held a four-point lead heading into the final frame.
Leading 41-37 with less than two minutes to play, the Nighthawks’ hopes rested on the backs of their free-throw shooting when an intentional foul sent Brynn Dahmer to the line for a pair.
The senior, who hit the game-winning shot in overtime of the semifinals, sank both free throws.
“I’m a superstitious person, so when (Dahmer) went up to the line, I found a spot on the floor and kneeled down,” Richards said. “After she made both, I had to continue finding that one exact spot same spot every time we went to the line.”
And, apparently, it worked as Murrieta Valley went on to hit five of its next six to clinch the championship.
Aliah Marshall led the Murrieta Valley offense, scoring 14 points while collecting six rebounds. Deshea Wilkes added 12 boards and scored 10 points of her own.
Murrieta Valley (26-5) now sets its sights on the state tournament next week. Pairings will be released today.