Verdugo Hills defeats San Pedro in Division II Semifinals
One of the stated goals coming into the season for Head Coach Kevin Peterson-Henry was to further cement the Verdugo Hills girls’ varsity program as one of the powers in the city-section. As the Dons sat on the doorstep of a third consecutive city championship berth, it was no time to rest on their past accomplishments. The opponent that stood in their way most certainly had the talent to provide a real challenge. The 4th seeded San Pedro Pirates came into the Barn determined to make a mark of their own, having posted double-digit victories in their first two playoff games. The Dons would need to play at their best, and after a slow start, they did just that, and rolled their way to a 70-48 semifinal victory.
The quality of the opponent mixed with natural big game nerves affected the early portion of the contest for the Verdugo Hills. San Pedro sophomore guard Noelani Raigans showed speed and quickness with the basketball in her hands, as she picked her spots and penetrated the Dons defense with good success on their first few possessions. The Pirates were patient and their early ball movement made it difficult to rotate to open shooters, leading to a few easy baskets. On offense the Dons were flustered and rushing their offense, which led to a few unforced turnovers. After the first few minutes of play, the Pirates had a slim 6-4 lead and it looked like the Dons might be in for a dogfight.
In moments where a young team is flustered under pressure, you need your leadership to step up and calm the nerves of the collective unit. Nicole Vanegas did just that when she knocked down back-to-back three pointers to turn a 6-4 deficit into a 10-6 lead in a blink of an eye. The tension seemed to burst inside of the gym and the Dons play would pick up from here. Another turning point in the first quarter came when Raigans picked up her second foul and was forced to go to the bench. A signature ability of the Verdugo Hills team is the ability to make life difficult for teams when they cannot initiate their offense. Without another capable ball handler to keep the flow of play going, the Pirates fell victim to the Dons ability to jump passing lanes and force them to pick up their dribble in places on the floor where the Dons could trap and take the ball away. With Raigans on the bench, Verdugo went on a lightning quick 7-0 run to extend their lead over San Pedro. A long-range dagger at the buzzer from senior guard Ciarra Villa provided a little momentum for San Pedro, but the Dons still held a 18-12 lead heading into the second quarter. "I thought we came out tentative, but when Nicole hit those back-to-back threes, it seemed to energize us,” said Peterson Henry on the Dons first quarter.” When their point guard got in trouble, we were able to take advantage.”
The Pirates hit a bump in the road towards the end of the first period, but in no way were they planning to lie down. With Raigans back on the floor in the second, the Pirates continued to play aggressively. They controlled the boards in the early going, creating second shots off their misses on the offensive end, and their tough attacking mentality saw them get plenty of opportunities at the foul line. San Pedro shot 6-10 from the free throw line in the period alone. The Dons matched San Pedro’s aggression with some fire of their own and put up their most productive offensive quarter of the contest. Verdugo’s captains led the way on the offensive end as the Dons weathered the early storm in the period and continued to extend their lead. Nicole Vanegas, Moriah Mosley and Ayana Peerson Henry combined for 15 points, 4 assists, 3 steals and a blocked shot in the quarter. Mosley’s on ball defense was stellar, as she made life miserable for Raigans and any other Pirate ball handler. The Pirates were beginning to hurt themselves with turnovers and Verdugo capitalized on the offensive end. In the late stages of the period, Moriah Mbachu and reserve forward Maria Vukic stabilized things for the Dons under the basket as they combined for 6 rebounds, and really took away any clean shots close to the basket. By the end of the quarter, San Pedro had only made two shots from the field and the Dons 22-10 advantage had pushed the lead to 18 at halftime.
With the championship game in their sights, the Dons did what championship caliber teams do and came out in the third quarter looking to put the game away. Peterson-Henry was in top form as she facilitated the Verdugo offense. She was responsible for 15 of Verdugo’s 19 points in the quarter, with 4 assists and 3 baskets of her own. The Dons ball movement was superior and their ability to find open shots led to an 11-4 run to start the half. The Pirates, desperate to climb back into the game, began to press full court to try to create some discomfort in the Verdugo offense, but the Dons were up to the task, breaking the press easily. The Dons shot the ball efficiently in the third quarter, hitting 9 of their 17 attempts from the field. The defense was just as impressive, holding the Pirates to 3-15 from the field. After allowing San Pedro to knock down 2 shots from behind the three-point line in the first quarter, the Verdugo perimeter defense stepped up and made the Pirates attempts from long range happen further from the basket. In fact, the Pirates would not hit another shot from behind the arc the rest of the way, going 0-11 in the final three periods of play. When the horn sounded to signal the end of the third, The Dons held a 59-31 lead and looked like they were easily on their way to the championship round.
The game was all but academic with Verdugo holding a 28-point advantage. To San Pedro’s credit, they fought all the way to the end. The fourth quarter was their best period of play as their desperation to get back into the game and make a last-ditch effort to get back into it, led to a hot shooting start to the period. The Pirates pressed and caused several turnovers. They knocked down shots and made layups on their way to a quick 10-2 run to start. The Dons found trouble finishing at the rim, but a Mosley three put an end to San Pedro’s momentum and any hope they had of making it competitive. Mbachu helped put the game on ice as the Pirates hot shooting subsided, and she was there to clean up the rebounds. Mbachu had 8 boards in the quarter, on her way to a game-high 20 rebounds in total. “I was very impressed overall with how we played. We got strong games from our three captains, also Morriah Mbachu and our freshmen contributors off the bench,” said Peterson Henry on the team's overall play in the victory.”I love seeing us play with that kind of energy defensively, getting out on the break, attacking the basket and moving the ball. We are playing at our best right now.”
The only negative to come out of this contest for the Dons came with two minutes left in the fourth quarter, when starting forward Victoria Vanegas went down with an injury. Vanegas appeared to suffer a leg injury when she came down hard on the floor after diving for a loose ball. She was down for several minutes and appeared to have trouble walking on it going back to the bench. "She banged her kneecap hard on the floor. I talked to her after the game and she said she’s going to be okay,” said Coach Peterson-Henry on the health of Vanegas. We’ll see how she is going forward. We definitely need her.”
The Dons will now turn their attention to the championship round where they will meet a familiar team in the #2 seeded Chatsworth Chancellors. The Chancellors posted blowouts in their first two games in the Division II tournament, defeating the #15 seed Bell Eagles 62-36 in the second round and the West Adams Panthers 61-41 in the quarterfinals. The Chancellors found the semifinals to be a much different story as they survived the upset-minded #6 seed Wilson Mules 53-43 to punch their ticket to the championship game, and to rematch the Dons in a game that happened earlier in the season at The Barn. The Dons won that contest 49-35 and handed the Chancellors their first loss of the season. Nicole Vanegas will get a lot of attention in Chatsworth’s game plan for the rematch, as she led all scorers with 22 points in the first meeting between the teams.
The championship game will be held on Saturday February 26th at 11 am at the Edward R. Roybal Learning Center in Los Angeles.