At the start of the season, the Los Gatos High girls basketball team was still finding its way and searching for its identity.
But the Wildcats know who they are now, and that’s as the reigning queens of the Santa Clara Valley Athletic League’s De Anza Division. They clinched the title with back-to-back wins over Palo Alto and Los Altos on Feb. 1-2, improving their record to 18-3 overall and a perfect 10-0 in league play.
Los Gatos’ season took a turn for the better after a 39-36 loss to Christopher on Dec. 28, a game in which it was outscored 16-3 in the fourth quarter, blowing a 10-point advantage over the final eight minutes. Well, Los Gatos hasn’t lost since, riding a 13-game win streak entering this week’s action.
In the Christopher game, Hannah Slover in one rapid-fire sequence scored six consecutive points, working a high-low game with center Nicole Steiner. However, Slover got hurt late and the team couldn’t stem the tide.
“I should’ve stuck with the high-low action in that game,” Wildcats coach Sara Quilici Giles said after a 52-43 win over Palo Alto on Feb. 1. “I should’ve put somebody else in that position, but we were still new in our season, and we were trying to run our offense in the way I thought was right. In the next game we put someone else in that position to run the high-low and we haven’t looked back since.”
Simply put, Los Gatos—which also recently earned the distinction of being the top Central Coast Section winter scholastic championship team in its sport, with a cumulative GPA of 3.89—has elevated its play because the players are more confident, translating to being stronger with the ball because they know they don’t have to rush their decision-making against teams that press like Palo Alto.
That in turn leads to several fast-break baskets throughout a game and the transition game is always a threat. Claire Galbo has been emblematic of the team’s improved mental toughness, as she scored a career-high 19 points vs. Palo Alto and followed that up with 15 points against Los Altos.
In the two games, the 6-foot-1 junior went an ultra-efficient 14-for-20 (70%) from the floor. She scored in a variety of ways: on runners in the lane, from in close, to jumpers at the free throw line or elbow areas. She also dove for a loose ball to force a jump with the possession arrow favoring Los Gatos midway through the second quarter.
Galbo pumped her fists and her teammates were equally exuberant for her hustle play.
“Claire has improved mentally and in her confidence,” Quilici Giles said. “She could always do these things but she didn’t know she could. And so now it’s like every game you get a little bit more confident.”
In the teams’ first meeting on Jan. 11, a 55-44 Los Gatos win, Palo Alto put two girls in between Steiner at all times, the ultimate sign of respect. That limited Steiner to just five shot attempts. However, the rest of the team had the confidence to take and make shots.
In the rematch, the Vikings used a different approach but the result was the same, a convincing Los Gatos victory. Steiner had only six points but finished with a team-high 14 rebounds, five assists and four steals. Steiner followed that performance with 17 points, 15 rebounds, four steals and six blocks vs. Los Altos.
Los Gatos started off slow and trailed by nine points in the second quarter before finishing strong, which has been a trademark of the team this season. Quilici Giles praised Steiner’s unselfish play, which epitomizes the team’s mental mindset.
“Nicole is unstoppable but she doesn’t care if she scores. She cares if we win and that’s how everyone on our team feels,” Quilici Giles said. “And it’s so nice to see because on any night anyone can be the leading scorer. It’s usually Nicole but on any given night anyone can get hot and we’re just happy if we win. We don’t care about accolades, we don’t care about stats, we just want to win.”
Ashley Childers has had another tremendous season and finished with 12 points vs. Palo Alto, with Ella Rabitz, who is having a breakout sophomore season, finishing with 11. Meanwhile, the Los Gatos boys team was so excited to start their game the players were on the court before the final buzzer from the girls game went off.
The Wildcats prevailed in a physical, rugged contest, 36-34, on Ronan Chinmulgund’s nifty reverse layup at the buzzer. The game was a showdown for first place and the Wildcats have taken control in the pursuit of the SCVAL De Anza Division championship.
Two days after edging Palo Alto, they beat Los Altos 54-47 and entered the week 16-5 overall and 8-1 in league, a game up on both Mountain View and Palo Alto in the standings with three division games remaining. The buzzer-beater against Palo Alto capped a game-ending 6-0 Los Gatos run in the final 1 minute, 24 seconds.
The Wildcats trailed 34-30 at that point and things didn’t look good as the Vikings were getting to the basket off dribble penetration almost at will. However, Los Gatos clamped down defensively when it had to, then got two free throws from Scotty Brennan who followed with a driving layup on their next possession to make it 34-34.
Palo Alto committed back-to-back turnovers, the last coming with six seconds left, to set the Wildcats up for the game-winner. Nolan Koch got the ball at the top of the arc but Paly had everyone bottled up except Chinmulgund, who freed himself up on the right wing behind the 3-point line.
The junior shooting guard took it to the basket, reversing himself as he went up for the shot and then watching as the ball rolled around the rim and bounced a couple of times before going through the net. The ending capped a game that had eight ties and 11 lead changes, where every possession was a grind due to the physical nature of the contest.
The Wildcats didn’t have a single player in double-digits; Brennan and Victor Josifovski had nine points each and Koch eight. Chinmulgund had four points, but both were clutch shots. His first basket came on a tough, acrobatic drive in the opening minutes of the fourth quarter.