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CIF basketball: Menlo caps unlikely run to D-II state title

SACRAMENTO — John Paye never expected to celebrate a state championship on Saturday night. That’s why his original plan for the weekend included a trip to Scottsdale, Arizona.
Instead, the Menlo School girls basketball kept advancing in the postseason, the journey ultimately culminating with a 70-63 victory over Rolling Hills Prep in the Division II title game at Golden 1 Center.
“My athletic director knows this story,” said Paye, who was drafted by the San Francisco Giants out of Menlo, but opted to play quarterback and point guard at Stanford. “Last month we had an opportunity for me to take my family, especially my special needs son Jack, to spring training because the basketball schedule had been all condensed down by two weeks. Today, I was actually supposed to be meeting Bruce Bochy. I had the plane tickets and everything with my son because I didn’t think we’d be playing this long. So I didn’t think we would win it this year.”
His players only found out after the fact during a postgame press conference.
The shocking revelation resulted in a collective groan, which quickly turned into laughter.
“I’m happy that I’m here,” Paye continued. “My dad ended up taking Jack to meet Bochy today and I got a picture, so I know it’s been a great day for the Paye family.”
This ends a 28-year wait for a fourth state title at Menlo since a Division V three-peat from 1989-91, with Paye as the coach and his youngest sister, Kate, on the roster.
“Someone asked me what was going to be better, winning this one or the other ones?” said Paye, whose youngest daughter, Georgia, was announced last in the pregame introductions. “I said, ‘Let me win this one first with my Menlo team, and I can now say that this is the most meaningful one I’ve had. Back then it seemed like things were just happening easy, and now I know how hard it is to do something like this.”
He added: “This is my family today. I know we’re a fairly young team and this is something we weren’t expecting at the beginning of the season, so it makes it even more meaningful.”
The Knights (26-5) stormed out to a 26-9 lead with 5½ minutes left in the first half as the girls quickly assimilated to the cavernous NBA arena.
Maybe the only player unable to find her range was sophomore point guard Avery Lee, who found other ways to contribute en route to a near-triple double with 15 points, eight rebounds and nine assists.
“We felt if we neutralized her it would make it tough for them to win,” Rolling Hills Prep coach Richard Masson said. “And I thought in the first half we kind of did, but other players made shots for them and then she got a little bit more comfortable.”
“I was just really trusting my teammates,” said Lee, one of three sophomores in the starting lineup, along with a junior and a freshman. “And when they get going like that, it’s just really fun to be on the court with them. Just driving in, drawing in the defense and kicking it out, and I knew they would make them.”
Paye described Lee, one of three co-captains, as the team’s emotional leader.
“The smile that’s on her face after our big wins is just exhilarating,” said Paye, who lost six seniors to graduation the previous year. “She just has that energy jumping up and down and hopefully we get to do that a couple more times, Avery.”
Rolling Hills Prep (27-5), last year’s Division IV champion, faced a team out of the West Bay Athletic League for a third-straight time in the state finals.
That experience paid dividends as the game wore on, with the Huskies nearly erasing a 14-point second-half deficit to get within 49-46 with 35 seconds left in the third quarter.
“We fought and we had it down to four or three points with an opportunity to make it very interesting and we just didn’t shoot the ball well today,” Masson sadi. “But all the credit goes to the other team. They did a fine job of mixing up their defenses and making it difficult for us.”
It was a courageous effort by Rolling Hills Prep, which lost a key player in Macy Pakele to a torn ACL four games into the season, while fellow junior co-captain Alyssa Maxey, who finished with 14 points and 14 rebounds, will possibly require ankle surgery and point guard Madison Yamada’s father died of a heart attack four weeks ago.
“Considering all of the adversity that we had to go through, these girls have been resilient all year long,” Masson said. “And I’m very proud of their effort throughout the course of the year and they’ve been a joy to work with.”
Menlo got a pair of double-doubles from sophomore Coco Layton (17 points, 11 rebounds) and freshman Sharon Nejad (12 points, 10 rebounds) to deny any possibility of a fourth-quarter comeback.
“I think we just really stuck together as one and that’s really important since we’re such a young team,” Lee said. “We definitely built upon that throughout the season and by the end of this tournament we’ve become such a tight-knit team and the chemistry is just great.”
Georgia Paye iced the game with four free throws.
Does it give her bragging rights over older sisters Emma (Menlo, ’11) and Hannah (Menlo, ’16)?
“Yes,” Georgia said. “Yes, I do.”
She added: “It feels really good. I’m very happy for my dad for finally getting another state championship and I’m glad I could be in his team. So, thank you dad. Love you.”
Kate Paye, the associate head coach on the Stanford women’s basketball team, couldn’t attend this state final, not with the seventh-ranked Cardinal in Las Vegas for the Pac-12 Tournament.
“I knew Tara VanDerveer before Kate did because I was playing football there,” John Paye said. “And I think I owe her a call, because she’s actually on the clock now. I had to wait 28 years, so Tara better win her NCAA championship because her last one was 1992.”
(Check back for updates.)

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