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CAMP ZAMA, Japan — Thanks to sharp-shooting MVP Janel Long and the defensive wizardry of Lauren Cleope, Faith Academy returned to the top of the Far East High School Girls Class AA Basketball Tournament heap for the first time in nearly a decade.

Long snapped a 45-45 tie on a three-pointer with 24 seconds left and Cleope made a crucial steal of an inbound pass with 7.7 seconds left as the Vanguards held off a huge fourth-quarter Seoul American rally for a 50-47 championship triumph Saturday at Zama’s Yano Fitness Center.

"Lauren stole the ball! Havlicek stole the ball!" Vanguards coach Dan Beaver said, mimicking Boston Celtics announcer Johnny Most’s call of John Havlicek’s famous playoff steal April 15, 1965, against the Philadelphia 76ers in Game 7 of the NBA’s Eastern Conference championship.

Faith’s victory capped the first unbeaten season in Vanguards girls history at 42-0. It was the fifth Class AA title in the past 13 years for Faith, but the first since 2000, when Vanguards assistant Julie Stauffer was Faith’s point guard.

Faith also owns four Class A titles, and moved back up to Class AA this school year after its enrollment spiked past the eligibility cutoff of 300.

But Saturday’s championship almost didn’t happen, as the Falcons, who trailed 40-25 with 7:07 left, staged a huge rally and tied the game on Devanee Taylor’s rebound of a Liz Gleaves shot with 1 minute left.

"I have to tip my hat to Seoul, especially Liz," Beaver said of the sophomore guard who "got them back into it" during Friday’s rally for a 54-51 semifinal victory over Kadena "and almost got them back into it today."

Using its patented 2-2-1 zone press, the Vanguards broke out in front 17-8 after one quarter, as their defense dictated the pace and the Falcons couldn’t find a shooting rhythm.

"We got ourselves in a hole early," Falcons coach Billy Ratcliff said. "They had shots we weren’t contesting. Those that we did contest, they hit. And we missed a lot of opportunities. I counted 10 missed points in the first half."

Finally, the Falcons came alive as the fourth period began, with a half-court trap and full-court press setting the tone. Gleaves misfired from deep, but Taylor’s putback tied it 45-45, setting the stage for Long’s and Cleope’s heroics.

Long holds Faith’s school records for three-point goals in a career, breaking Stauffer’s record, and a season.

"She’s our three-point queen, and she hit the biggest three-pointer of her career in the biggest game of her life," Beaver said.

The trap and the press "made a difference in getting us back into it," Ratcliff said. "But we came up short."

It was the second straight year the Falcons, 25-1 during the regular season, came up short in the Class AA title game. Seoul American won the championship two straight years, 2005 and 2006, but has finished third once and second twice since.


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