Thanks to a strong second-quarter performance, No. 2 Pinewood was able to hang on Tuesday night and defeat sixth-seeded Capital Christian of Sacramento, 54-44, in Los Altos Hills.
"Making it (to the NorCal championship game) was definitely a goal," Pinewood head coach Doc Scheppler said. "Anytime that you return all your players from the previous year, and you win it last year, it's definitely an achievable goal and a meaningful goal to do that again."
To make it to their second consecutive state championship game, the Panthers will have to go through top-seeded Brookside Christian, which defeated Eastside Prep, 64-50. The NorCal finale will take place at American Canyon High on Saturday at 10a.m.
"We know Eastside, we play against them all the time," Scheppler said of his team's West Bay Athletic League rival. "It's nice to play somebody different. Brookside Christian is playing well now. They beat (Capital Christian) by 10, we beat (Capital Christian) by 10. It's going to be a real good game."
Although the Knights present a big challenge for Pinewood, the Panthers have bigger goals than simply making it to the state championship game.
"I really want to win state (again) before I leave high school; end with a big bang," said Pinewood senior Leeana Bade, who was a freshman on Pinewood's 2011 state championship squad.
Added junior point guard Marissa Hing: "This year I think we have a better team and a better chance at winning the whole thing. It's really exciting to go back again."
Pinewood won last year's NorCal finals, 48-36 over Eastside Prep. This will be the Panthers' first meeting with Brookside Christian with so much at stake. Brookside beat Eastside Prep in 2012 on the way to winning the Division V state title.
Brookside Christian is 28-4 and is 110-20 in four seasons under head coach Que Ngo. Pinewood, 28-3 this season, is 99-30 during the same four-year span.
"Great guards, a great shooting team," Ngo said of Pinewood, which has made 280 3-pointers this season to rank No. 2 in the state behind St. Mary's (Stockton), which has 332. "It's going to be a challenge to get back to the state final."
Pinewood is probably thinking the same thing, even though the Panthers could be peaking at the right time.
On Tuesday, the Panthers were led by Bade, who poured in 17 points and tied a season high with three 3-pointers.
"Leeana was awesome, I thought she played her best game of the year," Scheppler said.
Hing had 14 points for Pinewood with four rebounds, three assists and two steals. Sophomore Chloe Eackles contributed seven points and six rebounds. The Panthers made only seven of 27 3-pointers (26 percent) but shot 55 percent from 2-point range (12 of 22) and 90 percent from the free-throw line (9 of 10).
Capital Christian's Haleigh Filer had 15 points for the Cougars, but seven of her points came in the final moments of the game with the Pinewood victory already well in hand.
Pinewood held Capital Christian 17 points below its season average, as the Cougars came into the contest averaging 61 points per game.
"We really had to work on their posts because they were really big," Hing said of defending Capital Christian. "I think today we did pretty well defensively."
After a highly competitive first quarter, Pinewood began to exert itself offensively and defensively in the second quarter.
The Panthers outscored the Cougars 24-6, thanks to nine points from Bade and five points from Hing. The quarter ended on a 3-pointer from Eackles that gave the Panthers a 39-19 advantage at the half.
The Cougars tried to claw back in the second half, changing up from a man-to-man defense to a 2-3 zone look, and holding Pinewood to just 15 second-half points.
"We just went cold," Scheppler said of the Panthers' offense in the second half. "I thought we fell into hoping it was going to go in instead of knowing it was going to go in."
Despite Pinewood's struggles, Capital Christian could never cut the deficit to below eight points, and Bade's 3-pointer midway through the fourth quarter helped ice the game.
"I respect (Capital Christian) for still being aggressive and trying to come back, because most teams give up if they are losing by 20 points in the second half," Bade said.
Heading into the NorCal finals, Hing is the only Pinewood player averaging double figures at 12.4 points a game. Bade is next at 9.8 while Eackles leads all rebounders with 7.2 per game.
Eastside Prep, meanwhile, lost a chance at reaching the NorCal finals for a third straight season after falling to Brookside Christian. The No. 4-seeded Panthers, who trailed at halftime by only 23-22, finished 20-11 despite 15 points from Charmaine Bradford and 14 from Alexus Simon — the team's only seniors — while junior Destiny Graham finished with 12.
Brookside Christian was missing two starters, out with injuries, but got five 3-pointers and 21 points from Ariana Vaughn plus another 21 points from Sasha Brown. The host Knights opened the second half on a 12-2 run on Eastside Prep, which suited up six players and played just five.
The Panthers are expected to have a larger roster next season and will have three returning starters, including Brije Byers and Chacitty Cunningham.