A Look Back at the Palisades High Girls Basketball Team’s Magical March to Arco Arena in 1999
By STEVE GALLUZZO | Sports Editor
No one knows whether or not the Palisades High girls basketball team would have won the CIF Division II state championship back in March. The coronavirus outbreak denied the Dolphins their trip to Sacramento to take on Northern California champion Oakland Tech.
The only other time in program history the Dolphins ever made it that far was 21 years earlier when a former LA Lakers ball boy guided a young but talented group of young ladies to their first City Section title, their first regional title and within one basket of their first state crown.
The Dolphins had lost to Narbonne in the City finals the year before and when the Gauchos were banned from postseason play in 1998-99 for using ineligible players, Palisades went from being just a contender to the overwhelming favorite.
Kevin Hall, who coached the team along with Joi Tanita, called the season “difficult,” and no one imagined a group with only three seniors would do what it did, especially after a mediocre 4-4 start.
“There was a bunch of adversity from the very beginning to even after the final buzzer of the season,” recalls Hall, who lives in Inglewood and teaches at Wilson High in El Sereno. “We were playing bad. I told the girls why should we look good and play like that? I did some Phil Jackson stuff and made them turn in their uniforms. We played in practice uniforms and I gave them back after the win in the [Martin Luther King Classic] because I was pleased with their fight versus Berkeley. We started off slowly but kicked it into gear right after Christmas when we smashed everyone in the Marina Huntington Beach Tournament. They thought we were a joke, but the joke was on them.”
The squad was paced by two outstanding seniors: point guard Leilani Estavan, who won the Palisadian-Post Cup Award as the school’s outstanding senior athlete that spring, and Nicole Funn, an athletic forward with slick post moves. Complementing them were two explosive guards, April Freeney and Itricia Ewells. Estavan went on to play four years at Oregon State. Funn began her college career there as well but ended up transferring to Pepperdine.
Palisades rolled through Coastal Conference play undefeated and got seeded No. 1 in the City Section Division I playoffs. After routs of No. 16 Birmingham (84-26), No. 8 Venice (69-29) and No. 4 North Hollywood (74-45) the Dolphins found themselves facing No. 3-seeded Washington in the finals at UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion. It was no contest. The Generals were unable to handle the Dolphins’ stifling full-court press, committing 15 turnovers, and Palisades built an insurmountable 40-18 halftime lead on its way to a resounding 79-36 blowout.
“On a scale of 1 to 10, I’d rate our performance about a 9.5,” said Estavan, who had 20 points and seven assists. Funn was unstoppable in the paint with 29 points and seven offensive rebounds.
Their 43-point margin of victory helped earn the surging Dolphins the top seed in the CIF Southern California Regional Division I tournament (there was no Open Division then, so Division I was the highest).
The winning streak seemed in jeopardy at halftime of Palisades’ first-round home game against San Clemente when the Dolphins found themselves trailing by 11 points. However, the Tritons’ best player Colleen Turnbull left the game with a badly sprained ankle early in the second quarter and Palisades took full advantage, erupting for 25 unanswered points in a nine-minute stretch of the second half en route to a 53-40 win.
The game Hall remembers the most is the regional final—a rematch versus Southern Section Division I-AA champion Palos Verdes Peninsula, which had defeated Palisades 47-45 earlier in the season when the Dolphins were missing Funn. This time, she netted 10 of her game-high 21 points in the fourth quarter and Estavan added 15 in a 53-41 triumph at Cox Arena on the campus of San Diego State.
Hall referred to it as “revenge at its finest.”
A week later, Palisades (29-4) traveled north to Arco Arena (now called Golden 1 Center), home site of the Sacramento Kings, in the unusual role of underdog, to face San Jose Archbishop Mitty, ranked No. 1 in California and ninth in the country after ousting Berkeley, 61-53, to win the Northern California Regional.
The Monarchs (30-0) were hoping to complete an undefeated season led by junior guard Rometra Craig (daughter of former San Francisco 49ers star running back Roger Craig).
It was then, on the night of Saturday, March 20, 1999, that Palisades nearly pulled off one of the most improbable comebacks in state finals history. Trailing by seven points with only 90 seconds left the Dolphins seemed doomed. However, they roared back for eight points in a row, taking the lead for the first time since the halfway mark of the second quarter on Estavan’s twisting layup with 22 seconds remaining.
That set the stage for a frantic finish. Palisades tried to press, but guard Aimee Grzyb penetrated the lane and fed forward Domenica Curran, who banked in a short jumper to give Mitty the lead back, 49-48.
Rather than call timeout, Palisaes tried to catch the Monarchs off guard, quickly pushing the ball up the court. Freeney launched a desperation 25-footer that missed the rim. However, it fell into the hands of Ewells at the side of the basket and she alertly released the ball before the buzzer. For an instant it looked like her off-balance shot would drop in for a miraculous winning basket. Instead, the ball rolled around the cylinder and out and Mitty players celebrated.
“They match up well against us,” Mitty Coach Sue Phillips- Chargin said. “They continually got second and third chances. We were fortunate they missed a lot.”
The Dolphins let tears flow in the postgame interview room. Estavan was so distraught she didn’t even acknowledge being awarded the tournament’s statewide sportsmanship award.
Final stats revealed Palisades committed 29 turnovers and made only 14 of 27 free throws. Funn led the way with 14 points and 15 rebounds but fouled out with 3:11 left and her team down by two.
“We win that game if Nicole doesn’t foul out,” Hall laments now. “I read Mitty Coach Sue’s comment. Yes, she was very fortunate that we missed a lot. Her undefeated record would’ve been tarnished. Honestly, I’d have rather gotten blown out than lose that way. Looking back, I really didn’t expect us to make it that far.”
The 1998-99 girls basketball team nearly joined the 1979 girls volleyball team as the only ones in school history to win a state title.
At 5-7, Hall was shorter than many of the girls he coached, but his record spoke for itself. In his first four seasons he led the Dolphins to three City title games—not bad for a walk-on barely five years out of high school himself. He started helping out three hours a day as an unpaid assistant to Tanita in December 1995.
“We’re very lucky to have Kevin, he’s done a fantastic job,” then Pali High athletic director Charlie Johnson said at the time.
The 1998-99 season remains the benchmark in Palisades hoops annals, but it didn’t take long for Hall’s old-school philosophy to generate some backlash. He left the next year but returned to coach the Dolphins through the 2003-04 campaign. The following year the sister-brother tandem of Ronda and Sheldon Crowley took over the varsity and JV while Torino Johnson coached frosh/soph.
Johnson took over the varsity in 2007-08 and over the next 10 seasons he led the program to four City titles (two in Division II, two in the Open Division) before resigning in 2017 to join the women’s staff at Cal State LA.
Current coach Adam Levine has kept the Dolphins on the winning track, leading them to a City Division I title two years ago and the City Open Division and Division II regional titles last winter.
The 1998-99 version, though, set the standard of excellence for all teams to follow and delivered the program its first City title.
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