PALO ALTO — Putbacks, putbacks, putbacks.
After a miss against South City last year in the Central Coast Section Division III title game, Aptos this season rebounded its way to the championship paint — and converted.
Junior forward Natalia Ackerman dominated the interior for the Mariners (23-6 overall), as the bracket’s top seed sunk No. 2 South City’s hopes of a repeat with a 58-37 win Saturday at Palo Alto High School.
The only thing that could slow down Ackerman was her fourth foul, which she picked up with 2:57 remaining in regulation. By that time, Aptos had already sealed the deal after leading by double digits the entire second half. Ackerman, at 6-1, recorded a double-double with 27 points and 17 rebounds, including 10 offensive boards.
“I think the only thing we had trouble with was when the ball would hit the rim, we didn’t know where she was coming from,” South City center Becca Tasi said. “She was just flying around everywhere. It was hard to box her out.”
Aptos head coach Chris Grieves, in his first season, wasn’t at the helm in 2017-18 when Aptos fell to South City 66-50 on the same CCS Division III stage. Ackerman, along with juniors Gabby Giuffre and Bella Stephens — each of whom scored in double figures Saturday — all were players in that game though. This time around, they looked like a different team.
“They are stronger,” Grieves said. “This has been a goal of ours, it’s something that we’ve talked about. I think the biggest difference between last year and this year really is just the tenacity.”
South City (20-9) is in reality a different team, with its only starter still around from last year’s championship game being sophomore point guard Alex Salise.
Salise was the Lady Warriors’ most effective shooter, going for a team-high 14 points. But her 5-3 stature was indicative of South City’s overall size disadvantage which Aptos was keen to take advantage of.
“Our initial defense was OK on [Ackerman],” South City head coach Paul Carion said. “But her rebounding was just fantastic.”
The Warriors held Ackerman to three points in the first quarter. And while she was already dominating on defense — she had two of her game-high four blocks in the period — the game was deadlocked 12-12 through the opening eight minutes.
Then in the second quarter, the putbacks went primetime.
Ackerman opened the quarter with an over-the-top steal in the defensive paint and darted coast to coast to give the Mariners a 14-12 lead. Stephens (11 points) followed with the first of her three 3s, all coming in the second period. Salise answered back with a 3 to keep South City close at 17-15. But Aptos’ next possession was punctuated by an Ackerman offensive board, who bulled back to the cylinder and drew a foul to produce the and-1.
South City was never within a single score the rest of the afternoon.
“She’s just such a great athlete,” Grieves said. “And then over the last couple weeks she’s just started to play her smartest basketball. So, you combine that phenomenal pure athlete, then also with having knowledge of how the game works, she’s unstoppable.”
Salise, meanwhile, got in first-half foul trouble. She picked up her third foul with 5:09 left in the half, which opened up Ackerman’s range around the Aptos half.
“Salise got in early foul trouble, I had to pull her off,” Carion said. “It was trouble. We couldn’t match up with [Ackerman]. And once she gets a step on our player, it just makes the whole team better.”
Carion gambled with three minutes left before halftime, letting Salise back on the floor. And the sophomore nearly picked up her fourth foul right off the bat, tackling the ball near the 3-point defensive perimeter and almost taking the Aptos guard with her. It turned out to be a borderline non-call, with Salise ranging to the other end and picking up a foul herself, converting both free throws in the aftermath.
“That’s just how she is,” Carion said. “She’s just a bulldog on defense.”
Carion said he talked with Salise at halftime about her needing to stay in the game. But by that time there was no stopping Aptos’ march to CCS glory. The Mariners outscored the Warriors 21-5 in the third quarter.
South City got its first 3 early in the half from Salise. The Warriors went on to shoot just 26.4 percent from the floor overall, while hitting 2 of 13 on 3-point attempts in the second half. Their second 3 came at the final buzzer as senior Jezelle Madrid closed it out with a harmless splash.
“I just wanted to play till the end,” Madrid said. “It did feel good but at the same time, you don’t stop, not till the last buzzer.”
The Mariners shot 46 percent from the floor throughout.
Tasi went for eight points and a team-high 11 rebounds for South City, though the Peninsula Athletic League North Division Most Valuable Player, with the long arms of Ackerman and Giuffre (13 points, six rebounds) in her face all night, had difficulty converting from the paint.
“I think it was hard on our part because we don’t have a lot of shooters this year,” Tasi said. “And we had to get a lot of inside shots to score.”
South City was all smiles in the runner-up team picture during the postgame awards ceremony. The biggest motivator for their smiles was respect for Aptos, Carion said. It also helps the Warriors’ season in not over.
South City drew the No. 3 seed in the CIF Division III state playoffs, announced Sunday. The Warriors open at home Tuesday against No. 14 Lynbrook-San Jose. Tip-off is scheduled for 7 p.m.
“I’m happy our season’s not done here,” Tasi said. “We still have a lot to prove. I’m proud of my team. We just have to keep it up.”