Pali High Girls Basketball Beats Santa Monica 51-36 to Win SoCal Regional Championship
By STEVE GALLUZZO |Sports Editor
At the end of a long season, only a handful of teams can proclaim to be the best. The Palisades High girls basketball team left no doubt that it’s one of them last Tuesday evening, adding the exclamation mark to a storybook season with a 51-36 triumph in its own gym over Santa Monica in the Southern California Regional Division II final.
The game was a rematch of the teams’ January 20 showdown in the MLK Classic at Santa Monica College in which the Dolphins prevailed 59-56 in overtime. That time the Dolphins were without injured senior captain Jane Nwaba, but she jumped center to start the regional title contest and her presence in the paint made all the difference.
Nwaba’s offensive rebounding, Sammie Arnold’s outside shooting, Ivy Scott’s drives to the basket, Demonnie Lagway’s left-handed layups and the pinpoint passing of point guard Alexis Pettis allowed Palisades to gradually increase its advantage over the first three quarters. Then, in the fourth, the Dolphins shifted to a higher gear, outscoring the Vikings 21-9 to become only the second squad in program history to capture a regional championship.
It was Palisades’ 26th victory—matching its win total from the previous year and the most since the Dolphins posted a single-season record 30 wins en route to the regional Division II semifinals in 2011-12 under former coach Torino Johnson.
Johnson, now the head coach of the women’s program at Cal State Los Angeles, was back at Palisades last Tuesday to watch his old team, only this time from the stands, not from the bench.
New coach Adam Levine is already halfway to Johnson’s four City titles (the program record), having piloted the Dophins to the Division I crown in his first year at the helm last winter.
“We were looking forward to playing Samo again… it’s a crosstown rivalry where the girls and coaches know each other so well,” Levine said. “There are so few rivalries in girls basketball and with the depth and coaching and location of Santa Monica this could be the start of one! The crowd was the best we’ve had all year on both sides and hopefully the fans enjoyed some well-played hoops.”
Fired up after Gabby Ligon’s soulful national anthem Palisades led 10-8 after the first quarter, 22-18 at halftime and 31-27 through three quarters. Lagway and Arnold had 12 points apiece, Scott had 10, Pettis had seven, Nwaba had six, Sofia Canter hit a 3-pointer and Sydney Meskin sank a free throw to round out the scoring. Guard Karen Garcia led the Southern Section Division 3AA Champion Vikings with 12 points and Iternite Reed added nine.
When the clock ran out, freshman Taylor Arnold sought out her twin Elise and older sister Sammie for a family hug.
“This season was very special to me, especially since all of my siblings got to experience winning the City championship together,” said Taylor, whose brother Caden helped Palisades’ boys squad take the City Division I title. “Everyone’s so extremely talented. I look up to all of my teammates. As a freshman I realize that not a lot of athletes get to experience this ever, no matter what grade. It makes me very happy seeing all the amazing things we’ve accomplished.”
Palisades won five of its seven postseason games by double digits and erased the memory of last year’s 68-66 loss at McFarland in the Division IV regional final.
“Our primary goal was to win the Western League, which we didn’t do last year, and then to win the City Open Division,” Levine said. “We knew all season who we were gunning for in CIF and had a week to prepare between playoff games. Regionals is totally different. You only get one or two days between games and you really don’t want tough practices so it’s a lot of adjusting on the fly. We played in so many close games—beating Samo and Redondo Union and taking Chaminade to the wire all without Jane—and that made a huge difference in the playoffs.”
The Dolphins went from atop Cloud Nine after the regional final to down in the dumps upon learning they wouldn’t be making the trip to Sacramento to play for the state championship. The California Interscholastic Federation released a statement last Thursday: “The CIF has canceled all state basketball championship games for March 13-14 at Golden 1 Center. This decision was made after careful deliberation and in the primary interest of protecting the health and safety of our schools, fans, and student-athletes. The impact of COVID-19 created many unexpected challenges during this year’s tournament season and we thank everyone for their flexibility, patience, and commitment.”
In anticipation that state finals would be canceled Levine told his team to leave it all on the court.
“All week, even before the regional final, I told the girls there’s a good chance Tuesday would be the last game,” he said.
Elise Arnold shared her disappointment upon hearing the news: “On the way to nutrition I called my dad knowing they held the meeting to decide whether the championship was going on or not. I called him right after class and he told me it was canceled. I couldn’t contain my emotion so I cried with my sisters. On Friday there was a team lunch at California Pizza Kitchen. We all laughed together reflecting on our season and even though we were all upset, it was hard not to be proud.”
Added Taylor: “Even though the state championship game got canceled it’s been one of the best experiences of my life playing on this team!”
Sammie, a junior who has surpassed the 1,000-point mark for her career, chimed in: “Although we’re extremely saddened by how our amazing year had to end, we know we’ll be back next season.”
Palisades would have played Oakland Tech in the state final.
“After winning Tuesday we watched film on them,” Levine said. “They’re very good and won D4 state last year! I think it would’ve been a great matchup.”
After leading Palisades to the league title, Nwaba was voted Most Valuable Player. Joining her on the All-League first team are Arnold, Lagway and Pettis and Scott is on the second team.
“Winning CIF was my No. 1 goal and going farther in regionals after how close we got last year is great,” Pettis said. “But I focused on improving and I did. It inspires me knowing my improvement has helped my team along the way.”
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