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Birmingham girls basketball survives King/Drew to return to City Section finals: 5 takeaways

Zoee Mitchell (15 points) and Natalie Lopez (11 points) lead a balanced effort for the Patriots

TORRANCE, CALIFORNIA — Two years after coming up victorious in its first Open Division finals appearance, Birmingham has a chance at title number two.

The Patriots held off King/Drew 49-44 in a tense defensive battle on Saturday at El Camino College, punching their ticket back to the championship where they'll face Westchester.

Here are five takeaways from the game:

1. Velasquez' buzzer beater turns game

Despite missing its first few shots, King/Drew was able to implement its brand of basketball for much of the first quarter. Very fast but undersized against all of their top foes, the Golden Eagles are at their best turning outlet passes and turnovers into easy offense, and chopping up their opponent's rhythm defensively by pressuring and swarming. 

They led 14-13 until the final seconds of the first quarter when Sammy Velasquez hit a buzzer-beating three to give Birmingham a 16-14 lead. And Birmingham settled right in, riding the shot to 12-2 run and opening up a 10-point lead late in the first half.

King/Drew never went away, and the deficit hung between two and three possessions for most of the game. Not long after the Golden Eagles cut it to four points shortly past the halfway point in the fourth quarter, Birmingham responded with the death blow – six straight points to re-up the lead to 46-36 with 2:28 remaining. The latter four points came when DeeDee Berry followed up a Zoee Mitchell three-point play attempt by putting back her missed free throw.

2. Mitchell, Birminham's depth change games

The Patriots have lived up to the billing as one of the deepest teams in not only the City Section, but also in Southern California. 

That was true even before Mitchell, a sophomore transfer from Heritage Christian, entered the fold halfway through the season. And with her in the fold, Birmingham gets even deeper by adding yet another Player of the Year candidate. Clearly, the Patriots are one of the deepest City teams in the last several years. 

The team's balanced scoring attack was in full display on Saturday, with Mitchell scoring a game-high 15 points, Natalie Lopez added 11 points and four assists, Velasquez contributed eight points, Lili Martinez had five points, and the bench contributed 13 more. Even with a two-point night from Berry, one of the most dependable scoring wings in the section for three years running, Birmingham got the victory with its three leading scorers combining for just 34 points. With plenty of talented teammates able to pick up the scoring load, Berry just kept the ball moving instead of trying to force her shot. That was the winning formula.

That's what great depth and defense can do.

Birmingham girls basketball

DeeDee Berry (10), Birmingham

"Our defense has been very good for most of the year," Birmingham head coach Victor Koopongsakorn said. "At times, it's lockdown. We will have to defend a little bit more consistently if we want to win on Saturday. I think our defense can step up to another level, and do it for longer periods. 

"It's our identity... And when things get hectic, being able to put the ball in Nat's hands – we have the utmost confidence in her. All the girls all follow along because if we can get a stop, we know we're going to get a good possession on the other end."

Velasquez and Lopez combined for 11 of the team's 15 steals.

Mitchell stepped up big-time down the stretch, scoring 12 points in the second half. Seemingly every time Birmingham's offense came to a sputter, she went to work in the post or grabbed a key offensive board. Mitchell also finished with a game-high nine rebounds to go with two blocks.

In the second quarter, right before the momentum had fully shifted towards Birmingham, junior wing Annette Jones came in and packed three layups and multiple strong defensive possessions into the span of two minutes. Along with Jones and energizing reserve point guard Kamora Coleman, Aniya Tupouata-Johnson played well off the bench, chipping in five points and some physicality in the low post.

3. Wallace shines without shiny numbers

The box score shows a ho-hum night for Alexis Wallace: Nine points, five rebounds, four steals, and three assists. But those who watched or participated know that she was a two-way force.

It's no stretch to say that Wallace is about as quick as they come, and she knows how to use it at the point of attack. Despite dealing with some quick, menacing backcourt defenders — Birmingham has more than a couple – she was frequently able push the tempo and get her teammates into advantage situations, racking up a slew of hockey assists and passes leading to fouls. Defensively, the impact of her four steals paled in comparison to that of her consistent on-ball disruption. 

And her energetic, exciting style of play got both the crowd and her teammates going on numerous occasions.

4. King/Drew will keep marching

There's a reason King/Drew played the hardest nonleague schedule in the section – to prepare for days like Saturday. It gave Birmingham a great effort, and while it's no consolation, it became the only City team this season to play Birmingham within 13 points. 

For the second straight year, the Golden Eagles were two or three buckets away from making the Open Division title game. King/Drew also achieved its first sweep of the Coliseum League this season, and has a chance to go on a regional playoff run before it's over. While seeding projections mean very little looking ahead to regional playoff brackets, it's easy to envision King/Drew getting a high seed in Division II and finding a path to a playoff run.

5. Keep the rematches coming

For Birmingham, this matchup brought an opportunity to avenge last season's first round playoff loss, which King/Drew won 53-52 on a Kaitlin Johnson buzzer beater.

And the upcoming final is a rematch of 2022, when Birmingham won 51-46 for its first Open Division title. That was with Birmingham's current seniors, including Blake, all in the fold. History tells us what we already know – that the championship should be an outstanding game.