After her vocal leadership at practice, the senior led by example on Thursday with a big game against rival Oakdale.
Stead netted Sonora’s only four baskets of the first half and scored a game-high 16 points to lead the Wildcats over the Mustangs 41-27.
“Oh my gosh, you would think this was a senior night with the way she played,” Santos said. “She’s playing with confidence, she’s very smart … she did great.”
Stead hit the first basket of the game three minutes in and then canned two 3-pointers to erase an 8-2 deficit. Sonora led 9-8 after the first quarter.
“It felt good tonight,” Stead said. “It’s my last couple games as a senior and I’m trying to make the best of it.”
Scoring was slow in the first period, but points were downright sparse in the second.
Oakdale out-scored Sonora 5-3 to take a whopping 13-12 lead into halftime.
“It was slow going at first,” Santos said. “Not effort level, and I don’t know if it was a real good defensive battle either because what was it 13-12, but that was ridiculous. For whatever reason we had trouble getting started and luckily they did too.”
In the second half, the Wildcats got going and kept Oakdale in an offensive quagmire.
Bailey Henington, after being held scoreless in the first half, slashed to the basket just seconds into the third period, scored the layup and earned a foul.
Maria Chacon added a bucket and a free throw and Stead added a three-point play on a nice in-bounds pass from Sandra Renda.
Sonora couldn’t pull away and led 24-22 with 2:08 to play in the quarter.
But then Stead stepped up again and canned a dagger 3-pointer to extend the Wildcats lead to five.
Michelle Ries followed made back-to-back hoops, the second a magnificent reverse layup in traffic to make it 31-22 heading into the final eight minutes.
“We weren’t really playing our game in the first half so we had a talk in the locker room at halftime about how we needed to pick it up, mostly offensively, because we were shutting them down defensively,” Stead said. “We just needed to execute better on offense.”
Oakdale’s Colleen Ibasco drained a baseline 3 early in the first minute of the fourth, but Oakdale wouldn’t score again until the final minute.
“We knew they had scouted our press,” Santos said. “When we played down there, their press offense was really good. So I had a pretty short leash on our press tonight. And going back to man I didn’t like how spread out we were. So we went to a 1-3-1 zone, and we haven’t ran it yet. We’ve been working on it lately and I just decided to go with it and they never seemed like they got into a set offense after that.”
While the Mustangs couldn’t score, Renda took care of the Wildcats’ offense, scoring six of the 10 team points, including 4 for 4 from the charity stripe down the stretch.
Renda filled up the stat sheet with seven points, a team-high seven rebounds, four assists and three steals.
“Santos gave a little speech about how we needed to pick it up,” Renda said. “We really wanted this game because the band was here, everybody was riled up, so we got riled up with them and took it home.”
The collective breath was sucked out of the gym when Sonora star guard Henington went down hard after an attempted layup with 4:55 left and a 37-25 lead.
“It was heart-stopping, gut-wrenching, it was all kinds of things and none good,” Santos said.
Henington was helped off the court after being examined for several minutes. The junior was also bulldozed in the first half trying to screen a defender and was down on the court for a few moments.
Without their top player, the Wildcats came together and didn’t miss a beat.
“It was hard watching her go out, but I knew we could still do this,” Renda said.
“Bailey’s a tough player and she’s gonna fight through it,” Stead said.
Sonora (14-8, 7-5 Valley Oak league) are tied with East Union for third place in the VOL with two to play. Just three teams from the league qualify for postseason and the top two spots are clinched.
Sonora and East Union will both play the VOL co-leaders, Kimball and Weston Ranch, respectively, on Saturday, and then finish the season against each other on Tuesday at Bud Castle Gym. It could be a winner-take-all contest.
“We’re really striving for playoffs,” Stead said. “We’re taking it one game at a time and hopefully that will get us there.”
Game note: The shot clock malfunctioned on the north basket, so both head coaches presume agreed to play without a time limit.