By STEVE GALLUZZO | Sports Editor
Judging by the look on his face and the calmness of his voice, one would never know whether Monday’s contest meant more than any other Torino Johnson has witnessed in 10 years as head coach of Palisades High’s girls basketball team.
“Senior Night” was his second crack at the 200-win plateau and his players, especially the six seniors playing their final regular season home game, wanted Johnson to reach the milestone on their own floor. Although the Dolphins battled back from a 10-point halftime deficit to take the lead in a see-saw fourth quarter, they came up short in the end, losing to rival Fairfax 64-59 and delaying their coach’s ascendance to the “200 Club” for at least one more game.
“I can’t acknowledge the wins without acknowledging the losses,” Johnson said afterwards. “I’ve had my share of both. I’m on the verge of an incredible achievement but moreso for the program, my mentors, parents, the school and everyone who has helped me along the way.”
Sophomore Kayla Williams had 28 points and Loyola Marymount-bound senior Chelsey Gipson added 24, including a driving layup that gave Palisades a 44-43 lead to open the fourth quarter.
Dawnyel Lair had 16 points and 17 rebounds, Fatou Semebene had 16 points and 11 rebounds and Chassen Gutierrez added 14 points for Fairfax, which avenged a seven-point defeat Jan. 20 and snapped the Dolphins’ 38-game league winning streak to move into a first-place tie with two games left. Palisades had not lost a Western League game since a 62-38 home setback to the Lions on Jan. 31, 2014.
“They were physical with us and we have to be able to adapt to that,” Johnson said. “Nothing comes easy. It’s fight or flight and we’re not running from anybody.”
Starting and contributing along with Gipson were fellow seniors Caytlnn Gorden, Julia Ide, Kayla Tavakoli and Chaniya Pickett, who swished a three-pointer from the corner to give Palisades a 37-36 lead with 1:51 left in the third quarter. Senior Lea Toubian was subbed in at the first timeout. Freshman Jane Nwaba rounded out the scoring with four points.
The Dolphins began the second half on an 8-0 run to pull within 32-30 and Gipson’s two free throws tied it, 34-34, with 2:40 left in the third quarter.
Twice in a row, Gipson stole an inbounds pass, made a layup and was fouled, putting Palisades ahead by four points, but Fairfax crept back in front, 43-42, heading to the final eight minutes. The Lions used a 17-7 spurt to build a nine-point lead midway through the fourth and Palisades never crept closer than five after that.
Johnson praised the efforts of his seniors. All but one have been in the program four years.
“Seniors are always important for us because culture never graduates,” Johnson said. “These girls have passed a wealth of knowledge along to our younger players and it’s surreal to see them filling out college applications.”
The part of the job the reigning City Coach of the Year likes most is teaching and while he is humbled by the attention his success has brought, he stays on an even keel and looked forward to Tuesday’s practice.
“Nothing’s changed… I love being in the gym working,” said Johnson, who has guided the Dolphins to four City titles, including back-to-back Open Division crowns. Palisades plays Westchester on Wednesday, a team the Dolphins defeated by 43 points in their last meeting Jan. 25, and Johnson is counting on the old axiom “the third time’s a charm.”
Johnson’s first chance for victory No. 200 came last Friday against Mater Dei at the Nike Extravaganza in Santa Ana. The Dolphins battled hard the entire game and made a valiant fourth-quarter comeback before succumbing 81-69 despite Gipson’s 37 points, four rebounds, two assists, two blocks and two steals.
Williams added 26 points, eight rebounds and five steals and Jane Nwaba had six points, 10 rebounds and three steals for the Dolphins, who trailed by as many as 23 points but outscored the host Monarchs 32-21 in the last eight minutes.
The 12-point margin was by far the closest in the teams’ seven meetings since Johnson took over Palisades’ program from Ronda Crowley.
“Our concept is to keep getting better,” Johnson said. “Even if there’s a perceived talent discrepancy, we refuse to acknowledge it. There’s nothing wrong with losing if you learn from it and that’s what we intend to do.”
The Dolphins travel to fifth-place Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies for their regular season finale Friday at 5.