Dons outlasts Highland in a slugfest at The Barn
The tension inside The Barn was palpable before the Dons and the Highland Scots fought to punch a ticket to the next round of the State tournament. For one of the teams warming up inside the gym, this was their final night taking the floor, which, for both would be hard to swallow. The Dons were coming into the contest as city-section champions and hadn’t tasted defeat in close to five weeks. The Scots had recovered from an up and down regular season to become central section champions. They too hadn’t lost a contest since February 8th; a two-point loss to league rival South. This contest would be a battle between two teams who are tested, resolute and with the championship hardware to prove it. The Dons and the Scots engaged in a test of survival and only one could live to tell the tale.
In most instances, when there is a bit of unfamiliarity between teams, there is a tendency to come out tentative in the early going until they work themselves into the contest. That was not the case in this matchup. Both teams came out swinging early and often. From the outset of the contest, two things were clear and obvious; Both squads were physical and tenacious, and the refs were determined to keep the game in check. Both Verdugo Hills and Highland picked up fouls at an expedient rate in the early portion of the game. The Scots 1-2 punch of senior point guard Leila Flores and senior forward Mia Ferguson meant business early. The high pick and pop caused confusion for the Dons interior defenders because of Ferguson’s ability to shoot from outside. With Morriah Mbachu forced to vacate the painted area, it allowed for Highland’s size on the floor to make life hard for Verdugo under the glass. While Highland only shot 37% from the floor in the first quarter, they held the rebounding advantage over the Dons, (9-6) and created second and third shot attempts. Nicole Vanegas went into attack mode early in this contest, matching Highlands aggressive play with her own to good success. She got herself to the line early and often, and in the process picked up early fouls on Highland’s defenders. She shot 5 for 6 from the line in the first quarter and scored a team high 7 points in the frame. Moriah Mosley followed Vanegas’s lead and attacked the interior of the Scots defense with success. Mosley made 2 of her 3 attempts in the quarter, both coming in the form of tough layups. The Scots were no slouches on the defensive end of the floor. After the early success Mosley and Vanegas had penetrating the Highland interior, their guards did a much better job harassing the Verdugo ball handlers and causing turnovers. It was a back-and-forth contest in which no team had found an advantage. After the first quarter, the game was tied at 13-13.
A theme that would persist and become the biggest factor in the ballgame was foul trouble. After Mosley picked up her second foul late in the first quarter, Ayana Peterson-Henry, senior co-captain and the Dons most versatile defender, picked up her second foul in the early moments of the quarter. Morriah Mbachu, who was already approaching double digits in rebounds, also picked up her second foul and had to leave the floor. With 3 starters saddled to the bench with foul trouble, it was on the shoulders of players such as freshman guard Elaine Oh, and senior forward Maria Vukic to hold the fort on the defensive end of the floor. With Verdugo’s biggest rim defenders off the floor, Highland did what experienced teams often do and attacked the basket. While they still weren’t shooting particularly well from the field, their aggressive play paid off in the form of free throw line visits. Here the Scots had no issues, as they knocked down 7 of 8 attempts at the line in the period. With foul trouble plaguing her fellow starters, the offensive responsibilities were on Vanegas, and she did not disappoint. She began the frame knocking down a three pointer. When the defense reacted on the perimeter, she was patient and moved the basketball. On defense, she created turnovers that led to easy layups. She led the way for the Dons with 9 points, 3 rebounds and 3 steals in the period. When Peterson-Henry reentered the game later in the quarter, she finished the quarter strong blocking a shot and converting a tough layup between two defenders to push the Verdugo lead over Highland to seven in the late stages. When it looked as if the Dons had control of the game, the Scots answered with two quick layups at the end of the period to take some positive momentum into the break. The game was still there for the taking, as the Dons held a slim 29-26 lead into the locker room at halftime.
Because of their foul woes, Verdugo had to adjust defensively to start the second half. What makes the Dons formidable is their team philosophy of attacking ball handlers and stripping the ball away. With three-fifths of your starting lineup being two infractions away from disqualification, it puts you on your heels a bit. Highland looked to continue to take advantage of this by putting pressure on the guards who were defending their ball handlers. The Scots didn’t settle for outside shots, rather opting to go at the rim and either get fouled or come down with offensive rebounds and get easy putbacks. The strategy worked in the early going of the period. By the 3:21 mark of the period, both Peterson-Henry and Mosley were saddled with four personal fouls. With her co-captains handcuffed with foul trouble, again Vanegas went to work. She scored the Dons final 10 points of the quarter, including 2 three pointers, a steal that led to a breakaway layup. She capped the scoring run with a heavily contested, short jumper in the lane towards the end of the quarter to give Verdugo its largest lead of the contest at 43-34. Highland broke up the 10-2 run with a pair of free throws in the waning moments to cut the advantage to 43-36. Spectacular free throw shooting kept Highland in striking distance in the contest to this point. Through three quarters the Scots were only shooting 23% from the floor but had attempted 20 free throws and knocked down 14 of them.
The fourth quarter found the Dons facing a similar situation that had occurred in the city championship the weekend prior. They would have to stand up to the pressure of closing out a team that had no intentions of going home empty handed. The Scots came out with the look of a team desperate to turn their fortunes. They crashed the offensive glass and found layups. They were physical and stifling and forced the Dons to turn the ball over. Highland started the quarter on a 7-2 run to cut the Verdugo lead to 45-43, and they looked to have all the momentum. On a close call that could have gone either way, Mosley was called for a charge on a drive to the basket with four minutes to go and had to watch the rest of the contest from the bench. The teams traded baskets down the stretch, highlighted by Mbachu’s layup on a nifty pass inside by Peterson-Henry. The Scots put themselves in position to steal a win on the road when Mia Ferguson hit a layup to give the Scots a 49-47 lead. Mbachu’s final contribution to the contest came in the form of two big free throws to tie the game up before she fouled out. The Scots hit two free throws to go back in front 51-49 and just when it looked like they might seal the game away, Vanegas came up with a steal, got fouled and stepped to the free throw line and calmly knocked down a pair to knot the game up. The most peculiar play of the game came in its final moments of regulation. Without any timeouts and needing to inbound the basketball, Peterson-Henry stepped in front of a Highland player, stole the ball and appeared to be fouled. After a discussion amongst the referees, they ruled it was an inadvertent whistle and not a foul that would have resulted in free throws since the Scots were in the penalty. Nothing came of the final possession, and the game went into overtime tied at 51-51.
The overtime period was all Verdugo Hills. While the Dons had adjusted to having to play down the stretch without the services of Mosley and Mbachu, it wasn’t until the overtime period that Highland had to deal with their biggest contributor out of the game. Ferguson picked up her fifth foul early in the overtime and the Scots were left to scramble for good looks at the basket. The Dons, on the other hand, received great contributions from reserve players Oh and Vukic in overtime. The pair knocked down three of their four free throw attempts in the extra period. Peterson-Henry, who played virtually the entire fourth quarter and overtime with 4 fouls, shut down any looks at the rim in overtime and helped salt away the game with a layup in the extra session. “We’ve been in these situations in tough games all year. I am more and more confident in all of them,” said Coach Kevin Peterson-Henry on the Dons ability to persevere in tight ball games. “They do a much better job of keeping their head in all situations. We were confident in overtime. We knew we just needed to defend, and then we hit some big free throws.”
The Dons blanked Highland in the period and punched their ticket to the Quarterfinals by a final score of 59-51. “That was an amazing effort by the girls. They showed such heart,” said Coach Peterson-Henry after the hard-fought victory. “That Highland team was so tough. To have so many girls in foul trouble all game and we had three girls get hurt and just play through it.” The game marked another stellar performance by Nicole Vanegas, as it has become a custom for her to come through when the team needs her the most. She led all scorers in the contest with 31 points and contributed 4 steals, 4 rebounds and an assist.
Next up for Verdugo Hills will be the 4 seed Shalhevet Firehawks. Shalhevet comes into the contest off of a 68-27 blowout victory over Maywood in the second round. The game tips off from the Edward Roybal Learning Center March 5th at 8:30 pm