Sato's late free throws propel Panthers to SCIAC Tournament final

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ORANGE, Calif. –  Senior Lauren Sato stepped to the line with four seconds left in a tie game with score all knotted up and calmly knocked down a pair of free throws to lift the Chapman University women's basketball team to a 66-64 win over Cal Lutheran in the SCIAC semifinal. With the win, second-seeded Chapman (17-9) moves on to the SCIAC Tournament championship game on Saturday at top-seeded Claremont-Mudd-Scripps.

In a game that was tied 11 times with the lead changing hands another nine times, it had to come down to the final seconds. The Regals (16-10) tied up the game at 64-64 with 37 seconds left when Katy Lindor drained a three-pointer from the corner in front of her own bench.

Chapman's shot with 14 seconds left to play was off the mark and corralled by Cal Lutheran, who immediately went on the fast break. The Regals couldn't connect on a long pass and Sato ended up with the loose ball as she was fouled in the desperate scrum with four seconds left.

She coolly walked to the line and drained both free throws. With no timeouts, Cal Lutheran rushed up the floor but a last second shot hit the iron and bounced away, sending the Panthers bench rushing onto the floor in jubilation.

Sato's clutch steal and free throws were the fitting ending on a big night for the senior. She had 16 points to go along with four rebounds, three assists and two steals. Sophomore Jaryn Fajardo matched Sato with 16 points and collected three rebounds with three assists. Senior Megan Charles scored 12 points off the bench to go along with six boards.

Freshman Ryann Garcia shot 4-for-5 on the night for eight points with seven rebounds, including three on the offensive end, and three assists.

A tight opening quarter looked to be ending in the Panthers favor but Natalie Ruhl banked in a buzzer-beating three-pointer to give Cal Lutheran a 20-18 lead. Chapman reversed its deficit in the second quarter, taking a 32-30 lead into halftime. Fajardo scored five points in the quarter and freshman Lucy Criswell pitched in four to lead the Panthers to the lead.

Chapman opened the third quarter on a 9-0 run to push its lead to 11 points. The Panthers shot 58.3 percent in the quarter, including five quick points for Sato to spark the run. However, the Regals shot 43.8 percent in the quarter with Janelle Porter pouring in 10 of her 19 points to bring the Regals back within three heading into the fourth.

Both teams came out determined in the fourth and traded blow after blow with the lead changing four different times in the quarter. Down a point with 4:30 to go, sophomore Katelyn Serizawa drove to the rim and drained a layup as she was fouled. After converting the three-point play to put Chapman up two, the Panthers made two defensive stops in a row and were rewarded as Charles drained a jumper for a 60-56 lead to cap a 5-0 run.

Two Regals' free throws made it 60-58. Sato put the Panthers back up four by dropping in a short jumper after a spin move in the key. Porter drained a three as the shot clock expired on the other end. Sato answered again with another sweet move to get to the rim. Lindor tied the game with her three-pointer and the stage was set for Sato's late heroics at the line.

Chapman avenged back-to-back SCIAC Tournament losses to Cal Lutheran from 2016 and 2015 with the two-point victory. The Panthers are set to meet top-seeded Claremont-Mudd-Scripps on Saturday at 5 p.m. with the winner earning the SCIAC's automatic qualifier to the NCAA Tournament.