Every rebound, every steal, every block and every point that the Palisades High girls basketball team accumulated Saturday night sucked a little more will out of its opponent.
By halftime, the outcome was a foregone conclusion after the Dolphins used a smothering full-court press to frustrate El Camino Real en route to 25 unanswered points in the City Section Open Division championship game at Cal State Dominguez Hills.
Palisades won 65-44 for its second consecutive crown and with only one starter graduating there’s no telling when its reign will end.
“I missed out last year so I had to get it this year and it was special having my friends and family here,” said Liz Newman, who finished with 10 points and 12 rebounds. “We didn’t let up. We wanted to make them quit. At the end of the half one of their players was crying on the bench and I knew we had them.”
As explosive as the Dolphins can be on offense, their foundation is built on defense and they held the Conquistadores scoreless from the end of the first quarter until early in the third – a span of 11 minutes, 14 seconds – to build an insurmountable lead.
“We played Pali in the [first round] last year and the same thing happened,” ECR co-coach Cara Blumfield said. “Their pressure got to us. When you’re scoring it provides energy and when you’re not it’s a domino effect. We start missing layups and free throws and the next thing you know we’re down 20.”
ECR held a five-point lead with 2:21 left in the first quarter after back-to-back buckets by Orelle Gelbart and Delaney Thomas, but Kayla Merrill-Gillett made a jumper, Chelsey Gipson swished a three-pointer and Merill-Gillett drove for a layup to give Palisades a lead it would never relinquish.
“Our intensity was the key,” Pali High guard Chaniya Pickett said. “We kept our energy high the whole game and they couldn’t stay with us.”
Merrill-Gillett led Palisades with 23 points, four assists and five steals, but her saavy and leadership stood out most.
“No, I wasn’t thinking about this being my last time – if I was I would’ve cried,” Merrill-Gillett confessed. “No way were we going to lose today. We’ve worked so hard all season for this and we knew we were going to do it.”
The third-seeded Dolphins (24-8) outscored ECR 18-0 in the second quarter to take a 32-12 lead at intermission.
Kianna Hamilton-Fisher made a layup to end the Conquistadores’ scoring drought in the first minute of the second half, but the damage was already done. She led the fourth-seeded Conquistadores (24-9) with nine points, Gelbart added seven and Trinity Contreras had six.
“We needed to break the press and that’s how they got us,” Hamilton-Fisher said. “I can’t remember having a stretch like that without scoring – not even close. It felt like forever.”
Kayla Williams drained a wide open jumper to open the fourth quarter, giving Palisades a 49-27 lead, and ECR never got closer than 17 points thereafter.
“There was a lot more excitement this year,” said Gipson, who had 15 points and celebrated her third CIF title in three years, having won a Southern Section title as a freshman at Windward before transferring to Palisades to help the Dolphins win the City’s inaugural Open Division crown last season.
“We’re even better this year because of our chemistry,” Merrill-Gillett said. “We’re all friends off the court, we spend time together and we all really want to win. This has been our goal since the season started.”
Sammy Spanier had 10 points, Williams had four and Caytlnn Gorden had three, hitting a jumper from beyond the arc early in the second quarter.
Saturday’s triumph extended Palisades’ winning streak to 12 games (all but one by double digits) and completed an impressive run through the City playoffs for the Dolphins, who dispatched their three opponents by an average of 29.6 points.
After accepting the championship plaque from City Commissioner John Aguirre, head coach Torino Johnson put his squad’s latest achievement into perspective.
“We don’t focus on stats, we just play one possession at a time,” said Johnson, who has piloted Palisades to four City titles in six years (two in Division II and two in the Open Division). “We want to minimize the other team’s field goal attempts while maximizing our own.”
Johnson thrives on quality competition and schedules the toughest opponents he can find to prepare his team for the postseason. This year, the Dolphins played perennial power Santa Ana Mater Dei and reigning state champion Stockton St. Mary’s.
“The crown still fits,” Johnson added. “I’m so humbled by winning, I have so many people helping me and this is for them,” Winning is showing up at practice every day, going to class and making a difference in the community. We produce winners at Palisades because we have a winning locker room.”
Palisades improved to 36-1 against City schools over the last two seasons, the only blemish being a 65-62 setback to Legacy in January that was avenged by 40 points in the semifinals Feb. 27.
“We don’t care what seed we get,” Johnson said. “Narbonne was No. 1 last year and look what happened.”
— Steve Galluzzo
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