MISSION VIEJO — Orange Coast College women's basketball coach Mike Thornton has spent most of the season trying to figure out his team. But after a 48-42 win at Saddleback on Tuesday that extended the Pirates' Orange Empire Conference winning streak to six games and lifted them into a first-place tie with the Gauchos, Thornton turned his inquiring mind to the source of the surging squad's good fortune.
As with most winning streaks, there are a number of factors, some of which the visitors (16-9, 7-2 in conference) displayed against the Gauchos (16-10, 7-2).
Included among those was the continued dominance of a 3-2 zone defense that has replaced Thornton's trademark man-to-man. The defense held Saddleback, ranked No. 9 in Southern California and No. 18 in the state, to a paltry 23% shooting from the field (17 for 74).
Also apparent was a revolving door of standout individual performances, as sophomore Chanelle Di Croce took her turn with a game-high 19 points, including nine of her team's last 13 and the clinching free throws with 14 seconds left to finalize the score.
But there is also Thornton's magic royal blue dress shirt, a Christmas gift from his wife that first mysteriously, and now ritualistically has been worn on the sideline for each of the team's seven conference wins.
Juxtaposed against a scenario in which Thornton has criticized his 25th team at OCC for being uncoachable, lacking effort in practice, and almost uniformly short on basketball IQ, a little button-down mojo might be as good an explanation for success as any.
"We have this theory that the shirt is bringing us good luck," said Di Croce, whom Thornton said is becoming a candidate for conference MVP. "He started telling us that his wife got him a pink shirt [specifically for the Coaches' vs. Cancer game on Thursday at home against Santa Ana], but we didn't even let him finish, before we all started going 'Nooooo, you have to wear the blue shirt."
As usual, Thornton's shirt was cloaked in perspiration, as the Pirates nearly frittered away a lead built by surges to start both halves.
While Saddleback was missing 17 of its first 20 field-goal tries (15%), the Pirates opened a 16-7 advantage that was extended to 18-7 before the hosts ended a scoreless streak of 7:41 on their way to a 25-18 halftime deficit.
OCC, which committed 17 of the game's 32 turnovers and surrendered a 52-44 rebounding disadvantage that included 26 offensive rebounds for the Gauchos, opened the second half with a 12-2 run to construct a 37-20 cushion.
But when Saddleback's Shannon Abdulla drained a three-pointer with 4:39 left, the hosts were within 40-38.
Di Croce followed her own miss and then netted a five-foot runner near the right block to put OCC back up by six, but another Saddleback surge pulled the hosts within two with 52 seconds left.
After an OCC timeout, Thornton, as he has done quite often in crucial offensive situations in recent weeks, spread the floor, making a Di Croce drive the No. 1 option. Instead, it was sophomore guard Dayanara Armenta who found a driving lane, cradled the ball with one hand through traffic and made a swooping layin with 24 seconds left to put OCC up, 46-42.
Di Croce rebounded a subsequent missed Saddleback three-point attempt, was fouled, and converted from the foul line, where OCC made 13 of 19.
Saddleback shot only five free throws, making three.
OCC sophomore forward Raechelle Davis had 15 rebounds and five blocked shots to go with her 10 points, while Armenta had six points, a team-best five assists, and one steal.
"Oh my gosh, we have just kind of come together with the unspoken mentality that we just refuse to loose," Di Croce said. "Hopefully, we don't give [Thornton] a heart attack. Maybe we can repay him with a conference championship trophy."
Orange Empire Conference
Orange Coast 48, Saddleback 42
OCC – Matar 6, Davis 10, Di Croce 19, Armenta 6, Bunting 3, Dalton 4.
3-pt. goals – Bunting 1.
Fouled out – None.
Technicals – None.
Sad – Moana 8, Braeutigam 0, Brooks 18, Abdulla 5, Rellin 4, Vardoulakis 3, Bell 2, Munson 2.
3-pt. goals – Brooks 2, Moana 1, Abdulla 1, Vardoulakis 1.
Fouled out – None.
Technicals – None.
Halftime, OCC, 25-18.