By Fred J. Robledo
Bonita High School’s Nikki Wheatley is who she is because of her speed and aggressiveness, ability to attack the paint and defend the floor with her quick hands, especially on the ball against dribble-heavy guards.
But that style also has resulted in foul trouble at times for the UNLV-bound guard, and it couldn’t of happened at a worse time for the areas two-time player of the year than in Saturday’s CIF-Southern Section Division 1AA girls basketball championship against Long Beach Millikan at Azusa Pacific University.
Wheatley picked up her fourth foul in the third, and fifth in crunch time. That ultimately was the difference with Millikan getting the big baskets and free throws down the stretch to deny top-seed Bonita a championship for the second time in fours years, winning 56-53 behind 20 points from senior center Alyssa Benton, and 19 points from penetrating guard Briana Guillory.
“It’s kind of hard to come back with your number one player on the bench,” Bonita coach Darren Baumunk said. “The (fourth) foul was a tough one because we had to take her out. She knew she was going to start the fourth and I thought we started to get momentum when she came back in, but then she picked up her fifth.
“I thought everyone else stepped up and we still had our chances, but we couldn’t get over the hump.”
Wheatley, who finished with 20 points and 13 rebounds, picked up her fourth foul with 2:38 left and the Rams leading 40-37, forcing Wheatley to leave the game.
Bonita, who got 13 points from fellow UNLV-bound guard Kandyce Smith, didn’t break with Wheatley out, getting four straight from Smith to take a 41-40 lead with 2:03 left in the third.
But the Rams closed the quarter on a 6-1 run, taking a 46-42 lead to the fourth.
Wheatley started the fourth, but she wasn’t as aggressive as she would have liked as the Rams built a 50-42 lead.
Wheatley started leading the charge back, hitting a pair of free throws followed by a Cassie Martinez 3-pointer to trim the Rams’ lead to 50-47. But after Ariana Abo nailed a floater to cut the Rams’ lead to 52-49, Wheatley picked up her fifth foul with 2:22 left going for a steal.
“I tried to be less aggressive on the last play going for the ball, but it’s my natural instinct to go for the ball,” Wheatley said. “ I tried to be less aggressive and still play defense, but I went for the ball and they called it.”
Despite having Wheatley turned into a spectator, the Bearcats were right there.
Smith had a game-tying 3-pointer fall short with 57 seconds left, and the Bearcats missed a desperation 3-pointer as time expired.
Wheatley, who advanced to the Division 3A championship game as a freshman and lost to Orange Lutheran, 59-42, said she and her teammates will just have to deal with the outcome.
“I’ve been here before and (losing) is no fun,” Wheatley said. “You work so hard to get to this point and having this end, it’s tough. But we can’t eliminate all we did before this. We worked hard and got here, that means something.”
Millikan used its size to race to an eight-point first half lead, getting back-to-back baskets from Benton and a jumper from Guillory to go up 26-18.
But it wasn’t just Benton’s size, Millikan’s guards constantly got to the basket on dribble penetration.
“Their guards were were quick,” Baumunk said. “You have to deny Benton inside, but if you’re worrying about Benton, the guards go right by you. Still, though, I have to give it to our defense. I thought we played as well as we could against them, they’re very quick and athletic. You have to give them credit.”
Martinez finished with nine points and Abo finished with six for the Bearcats, who dropped to 29-3 and will likely get invited to the state playoffs when the pairings are announced Sunday.