Pali High Basketball Teams Use Homecourt Advantage to Advance to SoCal Regional Finals
By STEVE GALLUZZO | Sports Editor
Oh, what a difference one year has made for the Palisades High girls basketball team. The Dolphins were road warriors in their run to the regional finals last winter, making two trips to San Diego and another north of Bakersfield in a span of five days.
This time around the Dolphins didn’t have to leave their own gym, beating Mission Hills, Crean Lutheran and Mater Dei Catholic to give themselves another chance at a state finals berth. They hosted Santa Monica in the SoCal Regional Division II final Tuesday night, hoping to secure the second trip to Sacramento in the program’s history.
“We’re excited to get the No. 2 seed but we have a very tough game out of the gate—Mission Hills is seeded way too low,” Pali High Coach Adam Levine said.
He was right. The 15th-seeded Grizzlies, the San Diego Section Division I finalists, showed up to play last Tuesday night and built an early six-point lead before the Dolphins regrouped to inch ahead 15-13 at the end of the first quarter. Palisades clung to a two-point lead a halftime and the visitors from San Marcos held captain Jane Nwaba to only four points.
In the third quarter, however, the Pepperdine-bound senior got busy in the low post, teammates fed her the ball and she scored 14 points in the last 16 minutes, finishing with 18 in the Dolphins’ 59-42 triumph that wasn’t as easy as the score might indicate.
“They’re a good team,” said junior guard Sammie Arnold, who had eight points. “They pass the ball very well and have size, but we got everyone involved.”
Point guard Alexis Pettis, who Levine said often gets overlooked, kept the Dolphins in the game early with 11 of her 15 points in the first two quarters.
Two nights later Nwaba again led all scorers with 17 versus the 10th-seeded Saints, who had lost by four to Santa Monica in the Southern Section 3AA finals.
Demonnie Lagway added 16 points and Pettis had eight for the Dolphins, who forged a 26-19 lead at intermission.
“We were in Division IV last year so we’re in a harder division, but we’re also better,” said sophomore guard Sydney Meskin, who took last year’s 68-66 regional finals loss at McFarland particularly hard. “We bonded on those long bus rides last year and home games aren’t a guaranteed win. We know what to expect—we’ve been here before. We can never be full… we have to always be hungry and play like we’ve never won a championship.”
On Saturday, the Dolphins faced their toughest challenge yet in sixth-seeded Mater Dei Catholic from Chula Vista, which lost to eventual champion La Jolla Country Day in the San Diego Section Open Division quarterfinals.
Palisades led by four after one quarter and by six at the break but the Crusaders pulled to within a basket on Teanna Alaman’s 3-pointer with seven minutes left.
Lagway took over from there and made a spinning reverse layup off an assist from Nwaba to give the Dolphins a 60-54 lead with 39 ticks remaining. Lagway ended up with 19 points, Nwaba had 13 and Pettis had 12.
“Once we won City I thought it would mean a lot to make some noise in the state tournament and now we have,” Nwaba said.
Meanwhile, Palisades’ boys team was making some noise of its own, advancing further than it ever has in the state playoffs.
Seeded No. 2 in Division IV for regionals after capturing the City Division I title, the program’s first section crown since 1969, the Dolphins began their quest for the state title against Independence of Bakersfield, the Central Section Division II winner.
The 15th-seeded Falcons got out in transition early and soared to an eight-point lead, but the home team trimmed its deficit to three by halftime. Keeping the hot hand he had three days earlier in the City finals, Sheldon Zanders again led the charge, scoring 18 points and dishing out five assists while Caden Arnold contributed 12 points and Graham Alphson had nine points and five blocks as Palisades grinded out a 57-52 win. It was a one-point game with less than one minute left before free throws by Dylan Griffin and Arnold sealed the win.
That set the stage for a quarterfinal round matchup last Thursday against seventh-seeded San Ysidro, the San Diego Section Division III champion. The Cougars’ roster featured point guard Mikey Williams—the No. 1-rated high school freshman in the nation—and a standing-room only crowd that included LA Lakers superstar LeBron James, fellow Laker Jared Dudley and rapper YG packed the bleachers to see if the heralded ninth-grader could carry his team to an upset. It didn’t happen.
“They have some real talented individual players, but from tape I watched I noticed they’re kind of undisciplined so I figured we can exploit that,” Pali High Coach Donzell Hayes said. “They don’t have a deep bench so I knew we’d wear them out as it went along.”
It appeared the visitors would enter the locker room with a lead, but Griffin made the most electrifying play of the season—banking in a three-pointer from beyond half court at the buzzer to send the home fans into a frenzy and put the Dolphins up 28-26 at halftime.
“Sheldon got trapped and he threw it back to me and I thought ‘Why not?’ I was shooting it to go in, I do it a lot in practice,” Griffin said. “That switched momentum to our side and we stepped up our defense in the second half. Also, they got lazy on defense because they were tired. They have five or seven guys, we have a full team.”
Alphson made his presence felt in the paint and resembled a human fly swatter, finishing with 12 points and six emphatic blocks, one of his rejections landing a foot away from James, who was seated in the front row.
Guard Anthony Spencer had 17 points, including four clutch foul shots in the final 30 seconds to ice the 58-49 victory. Williams scored 21 to pace San Ysidro.
In the semifinals Palisades got 12 points and 12 rebounds from Alphson and 10 points each from Zanders and Griffin to hold off No. 3 St. Pius X-St. Matthias Academy of Downey, 49-45.
“Every game we aim to hold the other team under 50 points,” Spencer said. “This team had big guys who can play so the key was to limit them to one shot and get baclk on defense. We put ‘we’ before “I’ and that’s why we win.”
Having vanquished the Southern Section Division 4A champion the Dolphins hosted No. 5 Bakersfield Christian in the finals. If victorious Tuesday the boys and girls will play for state titles Saturday afternoon at Golden 1 Center.
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