Piedmont girls basketball can’t keep up with Acalanes

Piedmont's Natalia Martinez (10) prepares to drive on Cameron Thornton of Acalanes on Feb. 21. Martinez was held to 20 points in a 66-40 loss. (Photo by Damin Esper)

This story has been edited to reflect the correct starting year of NCS Open Division in basketball as 2020.

Piedmont High School’s girls basketball team fell at Acalanes on Feb. 21, 66-40 in the fifth place game of the inaugural North Coast Section Open Division tournament.

The Highlanders were seeded in Division 1 for the California Interscholastic Federation championships in an announcement Friday.

Piedmont’s Kat Melian (12) screens Natalie Frenchman (11) of Acalanes during a North Coast Section Open Division playoff game on Feb. 21. (Photo by Damin Esper)

Acalanes dominated the game from the beginning. The Dons defense focused on Natalia Martinez, selling out to keep Martinez from handling the ball. They used a full court zone press to harass Martinez in the back court. They attacked in the front court to try to force Martinez to give up the ball. And if another Piedmont player had the ball, they would gamble by flying into the passing lane to prevent any pass from getting the ball to Martinez.

Martinez ended up with a game-high 20 points, but made only five of 12 2-point shots and two of 10 from 3-point range.

“Everyone’s game plan is you’ve got to limit Nat’s touches, you’ve got to limit Nat’s shot attempts because she is that good of a player,” Highlanders coach Bryan Gardere said. “We knew that going in. I felt like we didn’t really make a lot of shots and it just becomes that much more challenging. Obviously others have to step up and make plays and I think that’s where there’s a little bit of a challenge trying to get people really pay for two-timing her, doubling her.

Piedmont’s Shakila Zuberi (30) passes to Natalie Martinez (10) during an NCS Open Division playoff game. The Highlanders will advance to the CIF tournament. (Photo by Damin Esper)

“We know who needs to get shots and flashing but we’re having trouble finding them sometimes. It’s a tough deal. But when you’re that good, you draw that much gravity, man. If she’s not the East Bay player of the year, I’d be surprised.”

Said Acalanes coach Margaret Gartner, “We were doing a zone press, we were going to trap anyway, but we chose to trap (Martinez) more often than anyone else, knowing that she scores 35 points a game. It was a plan for us, to make someone else win the game, make someone else shoot. The girls did a good job. And denying her everywhere.”

Piedmont’s Samantha Smith (4) is trapped by Ariana Hallstrom (24) and Natalie Frenchman (right) of Acalanes. The Dons pressure defense gave the Highlanders fits all game. (Photo by Damin Esper)

The Dons (26-5) built leads of 13-7 and 32-16 after the first two quarters. Acalanes got 18 points from Ariana Hallstrom, 15 from Dulci Vail and 13 from Karyss Lacanale. They also killed Piedmont on the boards, 37-25. Vail had 10 rebounds while Hallstrom and Addi Ames each had eight.

Samantha Smith scored 13 points and Shakila Zuberi had nine rebounds for the Highlanders.

Piedmont committed 19 turnovers through three quarters.

“Some of our weaknesses right now are taking care of that ball,” Gardere said. “Easier said than done. It’s hard to win games when you average mid-20s, high-20s, 30 turnovers in a 32-minute game. You’re not giving yourselves a really good shake because you’re taking 20 less shot attempts in the 32 minutes.”

Piedmont’s Lindsey Wirgler (15) defends an Acalanes inbounds play. Ariana Hallstrom (back, white) is preparing to throw the ball in. (Photo by Damin Esper)

The NCS has been conducting the Open Division in basketball since 2020, putting the top six teams in the section in the top bracket, regardless of enrollment. Piedmont (20-7) lost both of its games, falling to Carondelet in the first round.

“When you’re put in the open, it’s a sign of respect,” Gardere said. “You’ve had a good year to be one of the top six teams in the North Coast Section, but it is pretty challenging because every team is so good. We have to somehow, some way kind of figure that out.”

The CIF tournament ranks all Northern and Southern California teams from top to bottom and fills out regional brackets without regard to what division teams were seeded into during sectional play. The top teams will be in the Open Division, the next in Division 1, then Division 2 through NorCal Division VI.

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