DANA POINT – The shots just weren’t falling for the Dana Hills girls basketball team on Thursday, Jan. 26.
It was the biggest game for the Dolphins since 2018 in their best season since 2018, and yet, it was in danger of spiraling desperately far away, as visiting El Toro hit shot after shot to go up by as many as 15 points in the fourth quarter. Then the Dolphins rallied to give the Chargers all they could handle.
Dana Hills went on a 13-1 run with eight points from Brooklyn Akason to pull within three points of El Toro with 11.8 seconds to go, and despite the Chargers again missing free throws late, the Dolphins couldn’t get the last score they needed, as El Toro hung on, 49-46, to take the inside advantage on the Sea View League championships with two games to go.
“Like I’ve been saying all year, it’s an accountability thing,” Dana Hills co-head coach Caitlin Buntin said. “When we started holding ourselves accountable for our mistakes and doing those types of things, we clawed our way back. Our program prides itself on inclusivity, accountability and high character. We’ve been preaching that from the beginning when we first started. Part of that was coming together, because they wanted it.”
This game figures to hold up as the decider of the Sea View League, with El Toro (18-8, 6-1) taking two of the three games from Dana Hills (13-8, 5-2) and neither team having much trouble with the league’s other two teams, Mission Viejo (13-13, 3-4) and Capistrano Valley (0-14, 0-7).
While the league title seems to have slipped away, it’s still an extremely successful campaign for Dana Hills, who will qualify for the CIF-SS playoffs. The Dolphins are ranked No. 9 in CIF-SS Division 4A. Playoff brackets will be announced next Sunday, Feb. 5.
“At the end of the day, you look at wins and losses, great, but we won in all aspects,” Bunting said of the Dolphins’ season so far. “We broke a 25-game losing streak (in league play). We took second place, that’s the best year they’ve had since 2018. That’s what we were preaching to them, that we win either way. I’m extremely proud of this group. They’ve surpassed every expectation of what we had coming in.”
With the late flurry, Akason led all Dana Hills scorers with 13 points, but the pacesetter all evening for the Dolphins was sophomore Lola Bellon. The 5-foot-10 guard scored 12 points and did a bit of everything to jumpstart Dana Hills multiple times.
“When Lola goes, we go,” Bunting said. “She’s the glue of our team without a doubt. Everything that she is and embodies for our culture. She’s a great kid.”
Bellon opened the game fast for Dana Hills with a 3-pointer, but that was the only lead the Dolphins would hold. El Toro put up a physical defensive front, while nearly every shot fell, as the Chargers raced out to a 13-point lead in the second quarter.
Dana Hills finally got something working inside with a couple baskets from Lineni Uaine in the second quarter, and Bellon also followed up as the Dolphins cut El Toro’s lead down to seven points at halftime.
El Toro would lead by 11 points after the third quarter, and early in the fourth, Bellon took the reins again with a quarter-opening 3-pointer and some aggressive moves inside. However, the initial surge didn’t last as El Toro pushed back out to a 15-point lead.
Then, the game turned on its head with back-to-back 3-poitners from Esme Korman and Akason. Now, with Dana Hills within seven points, the Dolphins began to foul and send El Toro to the free-throw line. The Chargers couldn’t capitalize, as they missed five of six free throws down the stretch.
This gave Dana Hills its opportunity as Akason remained hot with an inside jumper and a cut into the paint for the bucket and the foul. Akason made the free-throw to pull Dana Hills within three points with 11.8 seconds to go.
“They’ve continued to rise every single occasion,” Bunting said. “Every battle. They take the challenge head on, just like they did tonight… It shows how much grit and true intensity this group has.”
The Dolphins got one more opportunity after a pair of missed free throws by El Toro, but the Chargers forced a steal on the final possession and finished out the game.
Dana Hills next hosts Mission Viejo on Tuesday, Jan. 31, and rounds out the regular season at Capistrano Valley on Thursday, Feb. 2. The CIF-SS playoffs begin on Feb. 9.