Verdugo Hills outlasts Oakwood in the Northeast Valley Semifinals

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The Northeast Valley Tournament picked back up with its final four participants at Vaughn High School, and the Dons were up against the Oakwood Gorillas out of North Hollywood. The Gorillas came into the game with an impressive 4-1 record and had breezed through their first two games of the tournament. Their toughness showed as they traded blows with Verdugo Hills all game long until a missed free throw and late turnover sealed their fate. The Dons got a couple of late clutch baskets from Sophomore forward Morriah Mbachu as they held on to beat Oakwood 46-45 and advance to the Championship game.

Coach Kevin Peterson-Henry understood the challenge ahead for his Verdugo Hills squad at the resumption of the East Valley Tournament. The four teams left standing, including his own, had drubbed their opponents by an averaged combined 35-point margin of victory. If the Dons were going to walk away with the tournament championship, it was going to be a dogfight.

The Dons got out to a slow start by their standards, as the speed and aggression of Oakwood caused problems from the beginning. The Gorillas employed a half-court trapping style defense, which took away Verdugo Hills’ ability to run the floor and push the pace. The gorillas front court closed out on Verdugo’s attacking wing scorers and forced them to take heavily contested shots. When the Dons took those tough shots, the Gorillas were there to clean up the glass, leading to a 16-9 advantage at the end of the first period of play. “We just didn’t play well to start the game,” said Coach Peterson-Henry. “After that, we just played tougher.”

One of the more impressive aspects of the Verdugo Hills squad in the early portion of this season has been the team’s resilience. This quality was on full display in the second quarter, as the Dons turned the game around and showed the Gorillas that the game was indeed going to be a battle. Dons guard Moriah Mosley’s signature on ball defense was on full display, as she began to hound the Oakwood guards, making it tougher to initiate the offense. Verdugo’s defensive pressure led to fast breaks and easy baskets and the Dons erased the deficit from the first quarter with a quick 7-0 run to begin the second. The team amassed 8 steals and 3 blocked shots in the period alone, while only allowing Oakwood to put 3 points on the board. By the end of the half, the Dons had turned that 7-point deficit into a 24-19 halftime lead.

The third quarter saw both teams show the grit that makes them tough and formidable. Oakwood got back to their bread and butter, aggressively attacking inside and controlling the boards, creating second shot opportunities that allowed them to stay at arms reach of the Dons. As a result of the Gorillas pounding the ball inside, Verdugo began to rack up fouls, putting the Gorillas on the foul line. Mosley continued to force the action on both ends, getting to the foul line, and creating opportunities for her teammates to score. “I thought our 3 guards played well on both ends the last 3 quarters, even though we struggled to score at times,” said Coach Peterson-Henry. The action was back and forth as both teams traded body blows, but the Dons lead was still intact heading to the final stages of the contest.

It became clear halfway through the final period that the team who was going to advance, would be the team who could impose their will on the boards, and the Dons have a weapon in Morriah Mbachu that most teams don’t. A physical enforcer who can assert herself and create second shots when the defense forces the team into less-than-ideal looks. The Dons only scored 8 points in the fourth period, but 4 of those came at the hands of Mbachu, crashing the glass and scoring critical putbacks, including a basket that put the Dons up for good with 30 seconds left to play. Oakwood had opportunities to win the contest, but missed free throws down the stretch, and a costly turnover with 7.9 seconds left in the game led to their undoing. The Dons had to show grit to pull it out, and when the final horn went off, the Dons were moving on to the finals, on the strength of a gutty 1-point win over an equally game Oakwood squad. “We weren’t ready to fight in the beginning, but then we started playing our game,” said Coach Peterson-Henry, while reflecting on the hard-fought win. “I’m happy with how we turned it around and how we fought. That’s a good win for us against a good team.”

The team still has one more tough matchup before they can claim the championship, and it will not get any easier. The Dons will square off against Notre Dame out of Sherman Oaks. The Knights will come into the contest with an unblemished 11-0 record.

The Northeast Valley Tournament Championship at Vaughn High School tips off on December 11th at 2 pm.

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