The Live Oak High girls’ basketball team are set to battle for the Blossom Valley Athletic League Almaden Valley Division crown in the 2023-24 season. (Photo Phil/VisualSports)

A different league challenge looms this year for the Live Oak High girls’ basketball team, but the defense is in mid-season form and the offense has shown sparks of potential.

After reaching the second round of last year’s Central Coast Section Division III playoffs, the Acorns are on the march again and currently own a 7-2 overall record.

Last weekend, the Acorns traveled north to South San Francisco to face a strong El Camino team. The defense was fierce, yet an inconsistent offense led to a 30-26 loss on Dec. 16.  

The Acorns were led by Rian Henderson with 11 points and Kathliyah Clement with 10 points. 

The contest—a rematch of last year’s 46-35 Live Oak playoff win—was a good early-season test, but veteran coach Mike Kiefer knows his team is still jelling.

“We’re doing OK,” said Kiefer, before the game. “We’re trying to get better each and every day. We’ve had some injuries and only now have our full roster. Each game is a different game. Our ultimate goal is to win as many as possible, hopefully win a league championship.”

El Camino provides a most unusual setting. The school sits on five stories built into a hill, with the gym at the top and stairs are everywhere. 

And drawing a huge crowd on the lower part of the campus that Saturday was the 51st annual “Fungus Fair,” a celebration of wild mushrooms hosted by the Mycological Society of San Francisco. 

In a way, basketball was on top of the mushrooms on this sunny afternoon.

Live Oak’s front line is solid with 5-foot-9 senior co-captain Maya Rafat, 5-foot-11 junior Henderson and 5-foot-8 senior Isabelle Cline, paired up with Clement and Amaya Valencia. 

Extensive playing time also comes to Isabella Pinula and Lilly Mojica. Amelya Forbis and Allie Murray provide depth and transfer Aleenah Garcia will add to the mix when she becomes eligible on Dec. 30.

Henderson, Rafat, Clement and Cline spurred the Acorns to an early lead but offensive struggles in the second half allowed the Lady Lions to catch up. 

Live Oak’s defense was solid throughout, especially in containing El Camino star Mariah Flores, a fluid and athletic 5-foot-8 wing with college potential. 

Flores was held to just eight points, making 2-of-7 shot attempts, and scoring far below her 23 per game average.

“We just play standard man to man defense,” Kiefer said. “We want to be physical and aggressive. Our intention is to draw a team into our game. We use our defense to create our offense.”

A 19-16 halftime lead melted away as the Acorns had trouble sinking shots from the field after the break. 

Chelsea Basco led El Camino with a combination of scoring and passing, Flores contributed and a fourth-quarter charge came from the Lady Colts’ bench, with Francesca Junio and Adriana Del Rosario sinking buckets to push their team to the win.

“What worked best today was our defense,” Pinula said. “We were communicating. Our communication kept us in the game.”

Rafat noted that Live Oak struggled on rebounding and finishing at the basket. That was the case in the fourth quarter when the Acorns couldn’t score from the field and the Lady Colts scored two key inside hoops.

“We’ve gotta learn how to push through,” Rafat said. “Our goals are to find our flow.”

Four of the seven wins this year have been dominant performances. In those games, the Acorns have won by an average of 49.25 points and scored an average of 59.5 points. 

The ledger shows a 52-11 win over Anzar, 56-6 over Overfelt, 56-29 versus Mt. Pleasant and 78-7 against James Lick.

The defense has been superb all season, with seven of the nine opponents held to 33 points or less and no one scoring more than 42. 

But the offense has been in a bit of a funk and Kiefer looks for more consistency as Blossom Valley Athletic League play begins in January.

“We kinda shot ourselves in the foot today,” Kiefer said. “We did everything we wanted to defensively. We wanted to take Flores out of the game and make someone else beat us. We achieved our objective. But we got away from our offensive game plan. And they made key buckets and we didn’t.”

Last year’s Live Oak squad finished with a 20-6 overall record, including a spotless 14-0 record for the BVAL West Valley Division crown. 

This year, the Acorns will compete in the BVAL Almaden Valley Division, with some familiar foes and some new ones. Independence and Westmont high schools have strong programs and Live Oak will again see last year’s runner-up, Del Mar High.

Live Oak won the league title by topping the runner-up Dons twice last winter. The Acorns overcame an eight-point deficit entering the final quarter of the first match, forcing an overtime and prevailing 47-44. Cline shined with 17 points that night. 

In the rematch, the Acorns won again, dispatching the Dons 41-33 on the road.

BVAL play begins Jan. 9 at home versus Independence. Westmont comes to town Jan. 18 and the Acorns visit Del Mar on Jan. 23.
“All in all, the girls played hard,” Kiefer said. “They leave everything on the court, each and every night. They always give 100-plus percent. El Camino is a really good team and we fought all the way to the end.”

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