‘Third time is the charm’ as women’s basketball beats Cal Lutheran in semifinals

Senior guard Lauren Sato shoots the second of her game-winning free throws with four seconds left in the game. Photo by Doug Close

The women’s basketball team is headed for the playoff finals after beating California Lutheran University 66-64 on Thursday night at home in a game that was decided in the final seconds.

Despite not beating the Panthers in a regular season game since 2015, Cal Lutheran has knocked Chapman out of the semifinals the last two seasons. The Panthers will face No. 1 Claremont-Mudd-Scripps on Saturday, Feb. 25 in the conference finals, with the winner guaranteed a spot in the NCAA tournament.

Junior guard Jaime Hum-Nishikado shoots a 3-pointer during the second quarter. Photo by Doug Close

Senior guard Lauren Sato made two free throws with four seconds left in the game to win the semifinals for the Panthers.

“I don’t think I breathed until that buzzer went off,” Sato said. “So once it did, it was the best feeling. Especially after last year, (Cal Lutheran) took (the semifinal) and our season ended kind of abruptly. Being able to continue on and beating them feels really good.”

Sato and sophomore guard Jaryn Fajardo led the Panthers with 16 points each, while senior guard Megan Charles had 12 points.

The Panthers’ home court advantage worked in their favor as Cal Lutheran’s team bus was 30 minutes late to the game due to heavy traffic, delaying the game’s start time, which Sato said allowed the Panthers more time to prepare mentally before the game.

“(Home court advantage) played a big factor,” said head coach Carol Jue. “Two years ago, we went there and got blown out and we shot 60 percent. Last year, we were up by 11 points and got it taken away from us. So, third time is the charm.”

The team celebrates after winning the game in the final seconds. The Panthers travel to Claremont-Mudd-Scipps for the conference finals Saturday. Photo by Doug Close

The first half was a back-and-forth contest, with neither team leading by more than four points as the two sides traded leads until the Panthers went into halftime with a 32-30 lead.

Cal Lutheran senior guard Janelle Porter scored a game-high 19 points, while senior guard Jessica Salottolo had 8 points. The Panthers have now beaten the Regals in five of the teams’ last six matchups.

“Going into this (semifinal), I kind of was comparing (tonight’s game) to the last time we played Cal Lutheran,” Sato said. “I thought that was a great team win, and so we were just trying to continue that on into this game. We knew there was gonna be ups and downs in this game, but we knew to just go along with that and ride through the storm.”

On Saturday, the Panthers will travel to Claremont-Mudd-Scripps, who beat the University of Redlands on Thursday night, to take on the Athenas at 7 p.m. First-place Claremont-Mudd-Scripps swept the Panthers during the regular season, ending Chapman’s eight-game winning streak Feb. 18.

“We’re ready,”  Charles said. “We just played them last week, so I just think we have to touch up on some mistakes and correct it. If we just come out hard, we can get them.”

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