Dolphins Prove Their Resiliency

Palisades' Rico Matheney (right) tries to block a shot by Hamilton's Royce Williams in the first quarter of Monday's Western League game.
Palisades’ Rico Matheney (right) tries to block a shot by Hamilton’s Royce Williams in the first quarter of Monday’s Western League game.
Photo by Rich Schmitt, Staff Photographer

Sometimes it’s the game after the big one that defines a team’s character. In the case of the Palisades High boys’ basketball team, Monday’s game against Hamilton was an opportunity for the Dolphins to put last Wednesday’s home loss to Westchester behind them–and that’s precisely what they did. Playing perhaps its best 16 minutes of the season, Palisades (14-8 overall, 3-2 in league) outscored the visiting Yankees 40-21 over the final two quarters, erasing a 26-22 halftime deficit on the way to a 62-47 win. As good as the Dolphins looked at the end, however, they looked equally as bad at the start, missing 14 of their first 16 shots and falling behind 15-4. “What got us in trouble in the first quarter is that we were settling for too many long jumpers, not being patient and working for the good shot,” Palisades Coach James Paleno said. “After that we stepped up our defense and started running our offense, believing in it and sticking with it.” The key to any efficient offense is the quarterback and in the Dolphins’ case that player is point guard and captain Lebre Merritt, who was sidelined for 13 games while recovering from a hairline fracture in hjs left ankle’an injury he suffered at the Beverly Hills Tournament in early December. “I played a little against Westchester just to see how [the ankle] felt and it’s about 95 percent now,” said Merritt, who had four points, six assists and three steals against the Yankees. “It was in a cast for three weeks and I’ve been rehabbing it since then. I should be 100 percent for Fairfax.” Rather than sulk, Merritt made the most of his four and a half weeks on the bench, studying both the game and his teammates so he could be a more effective leader when he returned. “Since I’ve been out I see more of what’s going on,” he said. “In a way that helped make me a better coach on the court. It was hard, but I made the situation work to my benefit.” Implored by Paleno to step up their game, the Dolphins opened the third quarter on fire. Aaron Fitts’ put back pulled them even, 26-26, with 6:48 left in the third quarter and Deron Williams’ corner jumper gave Palisades the lead at 28-27 just over one minute later. Williams and Garrett Nevels each finished with 17 points and Fitts had 12 and Kenneth Towner added six. Royce Williams made four three-pointers on his way to 23 points for Hamilton (11-9, 1-5), which dropped to sixth in the seven-team Western League. “No, it never gets old,” Paleno joked about beating his alma mater, which he has done many times since taking over the program from Jerry Marvin in 1992. Palisades hung tough with perennial City power Westchester, one of the top-ranked teams in the state, but the Comets eventually pulled away for a 78-48 victory in the teams’ first meeting last Wednesday. Merritt gave his assessment of Westchester: “They’re a strong team but maybe not quite as good as last year. I thought we gave them a good fight.” By the time Monday’s post-game meeting had ended Merritt was already looking ahead to Wednesday’s showdown at the “other” league powerhouse–Fairfax, last year’s City runner-up. “I’m good friends with a lot of guys on that team–including Renardo [Sydney] and Solomon [Hill]. It’s going to be a tough game on the road but I’m looking forward to it.” Going into Wednesday’s games (results undetermined at press time), Westchester was in first place atop the league, followed by Fairfax, University and Palisades. * * * * * Dominique Scott picked an opportune time to play one of her best games of the season Monday. She not only powered Palisades’ girls squad to a much-needed 45-31 victory at Hamilton, she also left a good impression on coaches from Loyola Marymount University, where she may be playing next winter. “There’s a real strong chance of that,” Palisades Coach Torino Johnson said. “Their coaches were there and, pending the results of some test scores, she could be signing with them soon.” If Loyola Marymount coaches needed more evidence that Scott can be a force at the next level, Palisades’ senior captain provided plenty–to the tune of 15 points, 14 rebounds, five assists, four steals and two blocks. “She didn’t even play in the fourth quarter because we had a sizeable lead,” said Johnson, whose team improved to 12-8, 2-4. “Those are the kind of games I like.” Utopia Kates hadd 14 points and five steals and Nicole Flyer added eight points, six rebounds, four steals and four blocks for the Dolphins, who hosted first-place Fairfax Wednesday night (result undetermined at press time). “I believe our league is the strongest in the City,” Johnson said. “We’ve lost a ton of close games. We could easily be 6-0 but there are reasons we are where we are and now it’s about making a late push.” One of the close games Torino referred to was last Wednesday’s 48-46 loss at Westchester, despite Scott’s 17 points, seven rebounds and six steals. True, Palisades has had trouble closing out games this season, but Johnson has reason to be optimistic heading into the second round of league. Center Emily Westmoreland returned to the lineup after having her tonsils removed. What’s more, the Dolphins might be adding a player Johnson believes would make an immediate impact at point guard–Cheyenne Weekly, a junior transfer from Malibu–whom he hopes will be eligible for Palisades’ February 6 game at LACES. Johnson has also arranged for the Dolphins to play an intersectional game February 11 at Staples Center against Sierra Canyon, a school in Chatsworth. “That should be a fun experience for the girls,” he said. “I’m anxious to see how they respond.”