Crazy things tend to happen when Estancia High visits Costa Mesa in girls' basketball.
The Eagles barely earned one-point wins each of the past two seasons in the Mustangs' gym. And on Tuesday night in the Orange Coast League opener for both teams, Estancia nearly came back from a 12-point deficit with three minutes left.
This time, the Mustangs finally had an answer.
Her name was Aubriona Mathis.
The junior scored a season-high 18 points and also stepped up defensively, helping Costa Mesa earn a 67-64 victory in the first Battle for the Bell game.
One more win on Feb. 4 at Estancia, and the Mustangs can make sure that they ring the bell for the second time in three years.
"It's always close," Costa Mesa Coach Nichole Maddox said. "I don't need any more gray hairs, I'm too young for that. My kids just had heart and they didn't stop. They made sure that they got a 'W' today."
It was a dominant effort from the Mustangs (9-7), who never trailed after the first quarter. They also received 14 points from senior point guard Danielle Obong, and 13 points from senior forward Alexa Loredo before she fouled out early in the fourth quarter. Senior forward Jacqueline Guerrero added eight points in the Mustangs' balanced attack.
The tough Obong took a hard fall in the fourth quarter and got up limping but stayed in the game. She also made two of her team's four three-pointers.
"I airballed some," Obong said. "Just keep shooting, that's what my coach says. This game really boosted up our confidence. If we play how we did tonight, we can beat any team."
Estancia (14-3), the defending league champion which is off to its best start in recent years and is ranked No. 5 in CIF Southern Section Division 3-A, was led by senior guard Celia Duran. Last year's Newport-Mesa Player of the Year matched her season average by also scoring 18 points, and added a game-high seven steals. But she was defended well by Mathis throughout the game.
"It was a quiet 18, right?" Maddox said. "Aubriona did a really good job playing defense on her."
Costa Mesa also received nine points in the fourth quarter from sophomore Katherine Lawrence, helping the hosts hold off the charging Eagles. Duran did begin to heat up. In a 33-second span, she made a pair of three-pointers. The second one cut Costa Mesa's lead to 65-63 with a minute to go.
But then Mesa senior guard Sheena Reskey found Mathis for a lay-up inside, pushing the Mustangs' lead back to four points. Estancia junior Slade Garnett (15 points) drove inside and was fouled, making one of two free throws with 37 seconds left.
Estancia got a rebound on the other end, but a pass to Duran down the right sideline was out of bounds with 24 seconds to go. The Eagles got another chance, however, after Lehua Alama-Jordan's defensive rebound with 15 seconds left.
Needing a three-pointer to tie the score, the Eagles curiously shot a pair of baseline jumpers instead. Costa Mesa was called for a foul on the second jumper with three seconds left, but Estancia missed a pair of free throws.
To Estancia Co-Coach Xavier Castellano, falling behind early was an all-too familiar sight.
"We're known to do that, start off slow and let the game get away from us," Castellano said. "It's not a good habit, and they played great tonight. [Costa Mesa was] the better team. They did everything right; they hit their free throws, they didn't turn the ball over. At the end, we started playing our game, but they kicked our butts.
"We've just got to regroup. The league's tough ... I'm hoping this is a wake-up call for us."
The Eagles play at Laguna Beach, the place they suffered their only league loss last year, on Thursday night. Costa Mesa plays at Godinez.