Dons lose close one at home to Arleta

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The electricity was in the air during warmups as a jam-packed gymnasium awaited the tip off between two of the top-6 ranked teams in the City Section. More importantly, it was the first matchup of the season between East Valley rivals, who both have expectations of taking the title this season. Verdugo Hills are the reigning champions of the league, but the Arleta Mustangs walked into The Barn having won 12 of their first 14 games and were ready to prove they were the bullies on the block this year. When the dust settled on the contest, there were still more questions than answers as to who the better team is. On the scoreboard, Arleta survived a furious Verdugo rally and came away with a 45-42 victory.

Sluggish starts have plagued Verdugo Hills in recent games and this contest continued that negative trend. The Dons have had issues adjusting to opponents’ defensive pressure and it has led to many turnovers early in ballgames. Arleta shooting guard Destiny Salcedo took full advantage of this, and scored 7 of her team's first 10 points, mostly off fast break opportunities coming from Verdugo Hills inability to take care of the basketball.

When the Dons were able to break Arleta’s press, the shots would not fall. It felt as if the girls just didn’t have their legs under them, as this was the second night of back-to-back games. This game also represented their fourth game in five days, all against tough, physical opponents. “I think the schedule caught up with us a bit today,” said Coach Kevin Peterson-Henry on the sluggish beginning of the game. The Dons shot 1-13 from the floor in the first quarter, and in combination with the turnovers and easy baskets, found themselves trailing 16-3 at the end of the first period of play.

Despite the 13-point facing them at the start of the second quarter, Coach Peterson-Henry’s squad showed signs that they were far from done fighting despite their offensive struggles continuing. Guards Moriah Mosley and Nicole Vanegas showed why they are leaders on the team, with each knocking down a 3-point field goal and causing havoc on the defensive end of the floor. Mosley’s signature on-ball defense made it difficult for the Mustangs to find easy looks at the rim. Verdugo Hills reserves Marija Vukic and Katherine Flores-Escalante were impact contributors off the bench in the second quarter. Vukic bolstered the Dons offense, knocking down both of her attempts from the field, created from second shot opportunities from her ability to crash the offensive boards. Flores-Escalante did her part on the defensive end, harassing ball handlers and tallying a steal, a block and pulling down a couple of rebounds in the process. The Dons held Arleta to just 25% from the floor in the second quarter. but their own shooting struggles and turnovers on offense persisted. The energy had improved, but the consistency left more to be desired, as the Verdugo still trailed 25-13 at the halftime break. “We ran out of energy in the fourth quarter yesterday, and it carried over into today,” said Coach Peterson-Henry when talking about the team’s first half struggles.

If there was any doubt how tough the Verdugo Hills Dons girls’ varsity truly is, the second half of the ballgame is a testament to what this team is made of. It would have been understandable for any team playing their fourth game in five days to fold the tents because there could not have been much left in the tank. The intensity picked up for Verdugo right from the beginning, as they made it increasingly difficult for Arleta to get the ball to the spots on the floor that they found success with in the first half. Mosley continued to be aggressive, attacking the rim. While her 1-9 shooting wouldn’t tell you she played well, her willingness to apply pressure on the Mustangs defense made it easier for backcourt mate Vanegas to find her offense as the floor opened. Vanegas shot 3-7 from the field in the third quarter while knocking down both of her free throw attempts. More Importantly, it was the first quarter of the game where the Dons managed to outscore Arleta, trimming the gap down to 10 as the final quarter began.

In the fourth quarter, the Dons turned the screws on the Mustangs and the defensive pressure that built in the third continued as the quarter began. Arleta looked visibly rattled as the Dons had figured out how to deny Arleta’s star guard Salcedo and force the others around her to make plays. The Dons capitalized on this, creating steals and denying shots at the rim, which allowed them to do what they do best and get out and run the floor. During a 5-minute span in the quarter, the Mustangs double digit lead had been reduced to a one possession game. Mosley and Vanegas were the catalyst of the comeback, combining for 14 points in the final quarter.

As the drama unfolded down the stretch, the Dons had worked themselves into great position to steal a game that for three quarters seemed out of reach. What did not help Verdugo Hills during their comeback efforts were several pivotal calls down the stretch that did not go their way. During the last three minutes there were two loose balls that went out of bounds that in real-time appeared to be last touched by an Arleta player that were ruled to have been touched last by Verdugo. During the final minute, a Mustang ball handler looked to go over-and-back at midcourt while attempting to pass the ball to a teammate when she was trapped by two Dons defenders. These were critical possessions that may have given Verdugo opportunities to pull even at a point in the contest where they had the momentum. “Ultimately if we had played better, it wouldn’t have mattered,” said Peterson-Henry regarding the close calls.

The game came down to the final moments when Arleta forward Jessica Flores had an opportunity to salt the game away at the free throw line, with the Mustangs up by two. She made one out of two, giving the Dons what they had worked so hard for, a shot to send the game to overtime. Coach Peterson-Henry drew up a play to get Dons sharpshooter one last shot at the basket that clanged off the side rim. And just like that, the Mustangs escaped with a 3-point victory, giving the Dons their first loss in league play. “For as bad as we played against a good team, I’m impressed with how we fought back. And I’m not surprised. I expect it all game,” said Peterson-Henry on his team’s comeback efforts. “If we were able to make a few more shots we still could’ve pulled it out. Now we need to recharge and refocus for Rosemead next week.”

The Dons will have a much deserved 3 days off before they take the floor again on the road in another tough non-conference matchup against the 9-3 Rosemead Panthers. The game tips off at Rosemead High school on December 21, at 5:30 pm.

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