Dons take down Huskies in Division II Quarterfinals
The famous adage states that familiarity breeds contempt, and that could not be any truer for The Verdugo Hills Dons and the North Hollywood Huskies. These two East Valley league foes have played each other three times over the course of the calendar month, with each contest more physical and grittier than the last. Unfortunately for both teams, this third contest would spell the end of the season for the loser, so the intensity for both squads was at a fever pitch. This playoff game was a matchup of tough-minded teams, but it was Verdugo’s offensive firepower that would prove to be the difference.
From the outset of the contest, the defensive capabilities of both teams were on full display. North Hollywood’s sophomore center Shadel Ffench continued her stellar play from the last meeting between these two teams, as she controlled the paint on both ends of the floor. Ffench had 7 of the Huskies 8 rebounds in the quarter, and she kept Verdugo from getting clean looks inside in the first quarter. Despite her dominance in the paint, it did not translate into offensive success for the Huskies, as the stifling Dons defense kept them off the scoreboard until the 1:25 mark of the period. Because the Huskies have had plenty of experience trying to keep Verdugo in check to little success this season, they implemented a box-and-1 defensive strategy to force the ball out of Verdugo co-captain Nicole Vanegas’s hands, as she had 24 points the last time the two teams played in late January. What the Huskies could not account for was a returning Moriah Mosley, who missed the last contest dealing with a hand injury. Mosley made the Huskies pay for giving her open looks, knocking down two shots from long range. Ayana Peterson-Henry also hit on a long range shot in the first quarter, which forced the Huskies to abandon the zone defense. Once the defense was forced to honor her teammates, Vanegas was able to contribute a three-pointer of her own. The three co-captains accounted for all 14 of the Dons first quarter points, and after the first period, they held a healthy 12-point lead of North Hollywood.
The second quarter continued the theme of hard-nosed defense that was established in the first period of action. The Dons defense continued to stymie North Hollywood’s offense. The Huskies did not make their first basket of the entire game until the 5:55 mark of the second quarter. The one aspect that worked for North Hollywood in the latter half of the period was their aggressive approach at attacking the Dons interior defense, which allowed them to pick up fouls and get to the free throw line. The Huskies went 4-7 from the line, and more importantly caused Verdugo forward Morriah Mbachu to sit with early foul trouble. Without Mbachu on the floor, Ffench continued to feast under the basket, controlling the boards and creating second shots for the Huskies. Eventually North Hollywood was able to capitalize, shooting 4-7 in the last 4 minutes to keep themselves in striking distance. Mosley continued to bolster the Dons on offense, as she led the scoring for the Dons in the quarter with seven points and led all scorers in the game with 13 points at the half. “Moriah missed our last game against North Hollywood, so that might be why they decided to go box-and-1 on Nicole,” said Coach Kevin Peterson-Henry on the terrific performance of his sophomore guard, and her ability to capitalize on scoring opportunities in the first half. “They left Moriah open, and she took full advantage.” Despite a better effort from North Hollywood, Verdugo took a 31-14 lead into the half.
With their backs firmly against the wall, the Huskies started the second half playing with a tenacity they hadn’t shown the Dons in the first two quarters. The Huskies trapped the ball, causing a couple of quick turnovers. Ffench continued her stellar play blocking a shot that led to a run out and a quick basket. Before the Dons could blink, North Hollywood had gone on a quick 6-0 run to start the half and grabbed the momentum of the game. After struggling to find clean looks against a scrappy North Hollywood defense, the Dons co-captains stepped up and stabilized the game. Mosley and Vanegas knocked down three pointers on back-to-back possessions and ballooned the Verdugo advantage back to 17. Freshman guard Elaine Oh also contributed to the Verdugo scoring run, adding a long range make of her own. The Huskies continued to fight back as their control of the glass continued in the third period, but after the quick scoring run to begin the quarter, North Hollywood shot 2-12 to close the period. The Huskies remained gritty in the contest, but the scoreboard advantage continued to expand for Verdugo. At the end of three periods of play, the Dons held a 47-26 lead, and seemed to be cruising to a spot in the next round.
With a 21-point lead, the last quarter was all about getting out of the contest healthy, which was something the Dons could not do in the last round against Hollywood. Late in that contest senior Forward Katherine Flores-Escalante went down with a knee injury in a nasty collision and is unlikely to see action going forward in the playoffs. Despite losing Flores-Escalante, the Dons bench players stepped up and filled in admirably, providing the toughness the team usually counted on from the senior. “Kathy does so much for us in terms of rebounding, loose balls and energy.” Said Peterson-Henry, on the impact of Flores Escalante’s absence from the second unit. “We talked about how others needed to step up, and Victoria Vanegas and Elaine did just that.”
It felt as if the team might pile up more injuries as the game began to get very physical and chippy late in the proceedings. The frustration began to show from the North Hollywood players. So much so that at one point in the quarter, Ffench threw an elbow in frustration that very nearly contacted Verdugo’s Mbachu in the head after they jostled for a loose ball. The game concluded without any further incidents, and when the final horn went off, the Dons had defeated the Huskies for the third time this season and punched their ticket to the Division II semifinals. “North Hollywood played much better than when we had played them before, but we responded to each challenge they gave us,” said Peterson-Henry. “When Morriah got in foul trouble, Ayana did a great job on Ffench. Mosley stepped up and played well, and our freshmen played well. I was very happy with our energy and aggressiveness. I hope we come out like that on Wednesday''.
With two wins in the Division II City Championships in their rear-view mirror, the #1 seeded Dons now turn their attention to a semifinal matchup against the #4 seed in the bracket in the San Pedro Pirates. The Pirates will come into this matchup having won their first two playoff matchups against the #13 seed Jefferson Democrats, and a quarterfinal win against the South Gate Rams to punch their ticket to the semis. This matchup promises to be one of the better matchups in the city playoffs as both squads appear to be peaking at the right time. The Pirates have won 7 of their last 9 games, and the Dons are even hotter having won 8 of their last 9 contests heading into next Wednesday’s game.
The battle for a berth in the Championship will tip-off between Verdugo and San Pedro at the Barn on February 21st at 4pm.