COSTA MESA — Caitlin Bunting played four somewhat unsung seasons on the Villa Park High varsity girls' basketball team and was recruited by a handful of community college coaches before electing to join Coach Mike Thornton this season at Orange Coast College.
Just nine games into a season that was just beginning to show some promise, it appears Bunting will now watch from the sideline after a falling hard to the floor in the backcourt with 1:37 left in the Pirates' 51-42 victory over Saddleback on Saturday at OCC.
Bunting's injury, which Thornton later said the training staff was almost sure was a fractured right ankle, put a damper on the hard-fought triumph in the semifinals of the Erin Tomlinson Coast Christmas Classic. The win allowed the Pirates (5-4 after an 0-3 start) to surpass the .500 mark for the first time all season and advance to Sunday's 4 p.m. title game against College of the Canyons.
But while a fracture appears to have denied OCC the services of its savvy and scrappy starting point guard, it was clear that the bond Bunting had forged with her teammates, to whom she delivered 11 assists in two tournament wins Friday and Saturday, was as steadfast as the 5-foot-5 freshman's determination.
While being administered to on a training table about 10 yards behind both benches, Bunting, who sobbed uncontrollably against the pain and, perhaps, the reality that her season was over, received well-wishes from her teammates and competitors alike.
OCC leading scorer Dayanara Armenta leaned in to share a hug as the girls spoke softly to one another, their faces adjacent and their hands cupped against the backs of one another's heads.
After OCC players left the floor and retreated to their locker room, Thornton instructed them to all make another trip into the gym to tell Bunting they loved her, before she was taken away by emergency medical personnel.
"I just feel really badly for [Bunting]," said a somber Thornton after a game that featured woeful shooting by both teams and little aesthetic appeal. "She's a kid who was always in the shadow of other people in high school, but we thought she did some really good things, which is why we recruited her. She's not quick, but she's pretty basketball-smart and that's one of the things that we lacked last year. [Basketball IQ] was one of our big priorities in recruiting for this season, so we were real happy to get her.
"All [Bunting] kept saying to me [after the injury] was 'I've worked so hard, I've worked so hard, I've worked so hard' ... and she has."
Bunting had five points and three assists Saturday, but her all five points came during a 9-0 run in the latter part of the first half that allowed OCC to seize a 19-11 advantage. It never relinquished the lead again.
Sophomore post players Jessica Johnson and Jenna Arnett recorded double-doubles for the second straight night for the Pirates. Johnson produced 14 points and 14 rebounds, both team-high totals, while making five of nine field-goal attempts. She was the only OCC player to shoot better than 50%, as the team finished a combined 18 for 58 from the field (31%).
Arnett had 10 points and 12 rebounds before fouling out to help OCC post a 58-38 rebounding advantage.
There were plenty of rebounds to collect, as Saddleback (8-8) shot a dreadful 21.4% from the field, making 12 of 56 attempts. The Gauchos, Orange Empire Conference rivals for the Pirates, made three of their first 19 field-goal tries in the opening half. After halftime, it got even worse, as they missed their first 10 field-goal attempts and were one for 19, before sinking baskets on consecutive possessions.
Both teams combined to miss 30 of their 34 shots from three-point range.
"Both teams had trouble figuring the other out, offensively," Thornton said. "We made some free throws when we needed to and we made some plays when we needed to at the end of the game."
Thornton said sophomore starting guard Michelle Angel would take over at point guard.
"We really don't have a Plan B after that," Thornton said.