COSTA MESA — When the Orange Coast College women's basketball team began the season with three straight losses, Coach Mike Thornton and his players were forced to reevaluate their goals.
"We decided at that point, we were going to be the most improved team in the state," Thornton said.
The Pirates continued on that mission Friday, outlasting Cuesta, 75-69, in the first round of the eight-team Erin Tomlinson Coast Christmas Classic at OCC. It was the first home game of the season for OCC (4-4), which has now won four of its last five.
The Pirates meet Orange Empire Conference rival Saddleback (8-7) in Saturday's semifinals at 7 p.m.
"We're going in the right direction," a smiling Thornton said after his team's biggest win of the season. "Cuesta is a good team. [The Cougars] are 7-2 and they won their own tournament last week."
Freshman Dayanara Armenta had 19 of her game-high 25 points in the second half to help the hosts overcome a 33-32 halftime deficit.
Armenta made six of 10 field-goal attempts after intermission, including three of five from three-point distance. In one five-minute stretch early in the second half, she scored 14 of her team's 16 points to turn a 41-38 deficit into a 54-47 advantage with 10:33 left in the game.
A three-pointer by freshman Courtney Chadwick (a team-best 24 points) pulled Cuesta within 70-69 with 31 seconds left. But the Pirates scored the final five points of the game, all from the foul line, to elevate their confidence to a new level.
"We've improved a lot since our first game," said Armenta, who upped her team-leading scoring average to 19.5 per game. "This was a big win. The fact that we pulled it together was really good."
Helping bring things together were front-line starters Jessica Johnson and Jenna Arnett, as well as starting guards Michelle Angel and Caitlin Bunting.
Johnson, a sophomore transfer from Cal State San Marcos, had 19 points and 13 rebounds. She made eight of 11 field-goal attempts and rebounded a missed free throw with 28 seconds left to help protect the lead.
Arnett, a sophomore returner, had 11 points and 11 boards, while Angel, another sophomore returner, had 11 points, five assists and three rebounds, while exemplifying the team's determination.
Bunting, a freshman point guard, delivered eight assists to go with three points. Her foul shot with 28 seconds left, the first of a double-bonus situation, put the Pirates on top, 71-69.
"That first weekend [three tournament losses] was a wake-up call," Thornton said. "We had two players sitting out for disciplinary reasons in the first game, which I thought cost us a win. And we hadn't yet figured out how our team should play. We need to play man-to-man defense, push the ball and have a good inside-outside game on offense. I thought we did that well tonight."
Chadwick torched the Pirates for 17 first-half points, but had only one second-half field goal until she netted the aforementioned three-pointer in the final minute.
Sophomore post Aria Johnson had 15 of her 19 points in the second half to help pick up the slack for the visitors, for whom leading scorer Alyssa Palma had seven points on two-of-seven shooting.
Palma was guarded primarily by Armenta, who was a defensive stopper last season for a Foothill High team that finished 28-6 and reached the CIF State Southern California Regional final.
"[Armenta] was a shut-down defender that was probably their fourth option on offense [5.6 points per game]," said Thornton, who asked the 5-foot-6 guard to also be a key on offense for the Pirates.
"[Coaches] told me that I was going to score and I was still going to guard [people]," said Armenta, who, with 156 points in eight games as a collegian, is closing in on the 182 points she produced in 34 games as a high school senior. "I was like, yeah, I'll do it."