BURBANK — The Providence High girls' basketball players knew full well the significance of Friday's game.
Although the Pioneers were taking on a highly ranked opponent in Providence Hall from Santa Barbara and it was senior night, there was something else on the Providence players' minds.
The Pioneers were playing for their coach, Andrew Bencze, who was sitting at 299 career wins and needed the victory to burst into the elite 300-victory stratosphere.
There were serious doubts whether the Pioneers would be able to give their coach the win, as they didn't play particularly well in the first half, as Providence Hall led for most of the first three quarters. But the Pioneers intensified their defensive pressure in the third and that allowed them to surge in front and eventually notch a 62-44 victory at home.
Since taking over the girls' basketball program in 1994, Bencze has built Providence into a winner, both in the Liberty League and in the playoffs. Under Bencze, the Pioneers have captured nine league championships, including the last three.
After the conclusion of the game, a ceremony on the court was held to commemorate Bencze's accomplishment. The coach seemed a bit overwhelmed by the attention.
"I didn't even know I was that close to 300 until the other day," said Bencze, who was informed of his win total by assistant coach Nick Rondin.
"When I think about 300 wins, I think, No. 1, that they all have been at Providence. I graduated from Providence and I'm very proud to be a part of the school. And that makes it that much more special because it come at a school that I really love. But another thing that I think about is, although it's 300 victories, there are a lot of girls who have been a very big part of what I've been able to accomplish."
Two Providence players who have learned from four years of playing under Bencze are seniors Janel Adraneda and Bea Benedicto. Both said they were determined to get their coach the win Friday night.
"Before our last practice, coach Rondin told us about it and that's how we knew," Adraneda said. "Knowing it was this 300th win, we all talked and said to each other 'Come on guys, we need to get this.' It meant a lot for us seniors who have been with him for so long … our goal was to get it for him."
Said Benedicto: "We needed to get the win not only for senior night, but because it was for Mr. Bencze's 300th win. We just wanted to pull through for him."
And pull through they did. But not before having to stage a comeback to do so.
The Pioneers (15-8) — ranked No. 2 in CIF Southern Section Division V-AA — shot poorly in the first half and trailed after the first quarter and at halftime. When Providence Hall's Olivia Barroca hit a three-pointer to open the third quarter, the hosts found themselves down by six, 29-23.
What followed was a trying shooting stint for the Pioneers, who missed their first nine shots from the field to start the third. But the Lions (12-5) — ranked No. 3 in Division VI — couldn't capitalize. While the Pioneers were missing shots, their defense was forcing turnovers by the bucket full.
Providence Hall was also hampered by their star player, 6-foot-1 senior Sydney Hedges, picking up her fourth foul with 3:39 left. Hedges gave the Pioneers headaches on both ends of the floor, ending with a game-high 30 points to go along with 16 rebounds and six blocks.
But Providence was able to weather the storm, as the three-pointer would turn out to be the only points scored by the visitors in the frame. The Pioneers were also kept in the game by forcing 16 turnovers in the third. The Pioneers turned their six-point deficit into a five-point lead heading into the fourth.
"We just didn't have our regular intensity in the first half and Providence Hall took advantage of that," Bencze said. "But here at Providence, we might not always have the best group of players, but we have learned how to squeak out wins. And tonight that was a classic example of us doing it."
Providence came out and dominated in the fourth quarter, coasting down the stretch.
Sophomore Katia Dabbaghian paced the Pioneers with 20 points and nine assists. Benedicto added 12 points and seven rebounds.