Verdugo Hills falls to Shalhevet at State Quarterfinals
The Verdugo Hills girls’ varsity basketball team has had a season to remember. They took home their third consecutive city championship. They won a program record 24 games. They set a new standard of excellence that future teams will have to measure up to. With all the positives that had already been achieved, finding success in the state championships would be icing on the cake. But the Dons were seeking more. After being named the top seed in the Division V section of the state tournament, Coach Kevin Peterson-Henry knew the task would not be easy, but his girls had been resilient all season long. Their toughness was on full display in a hard-fought victory in the second round of the state playoffs when they outlasted a tough Highland squad to pick up their second win of the state tournament. But with 34 games under their belt, and injuries beginning to mount, it would take a massive effort to continue towards a place in Sacramento with the teams getting tougher by the game.
When the contest got underway against the Shalhevet Firehawks, the Dons looked as sharp as they had been all season long. Shalhevet’s game plan early on was to fire away from the outside with little success. The Dons did a good job in the early going of rebounding the basketball, which allowed them to get out on the break and attack the basket. Moriah Mosley set the tone early for the Dons on both ends of the floor. She knocked down a three point-basket and on the ensuing possession, grabbed a rebound and raced down the floor and beat the defense for a layup. Mosley was in the pockets of her opponents early and a theft led to an easy Ayana Peterson-Henry layup on the other end. The Dons raced out to an 11-4 lead over Shalhevet before an early timeout. To the Firehawks credit, they were able to withstand the early barrage and adjust to the Dons style of play. Shalhevet began to attack Verdugo Hills on the interior as opposed to continuing to fire away from the perimeter. Sophomore guard Yalee Schwartz began to make an impact on the game as she found space around the basket. The Firehawks came into the game with size up and down their roster. The benefits began to pay off, as they were able to crash the glass and create second shot opportunities. After the timeout, the Firehawks went on a quick 6-0 run to cut the deficit to 11-10. The teams traded baskets before the end of the frame, and when the horn sounded the Dons had a 14-12 lead.
It was a competitive first quarter from both teams, and it appeared that they were evenly matched. The winner of this game would be the team that took care of details. For the Dons, it was a particularly clean start to the game. In the previous contest, the Dons piled up fouls early. In this game, Shalhevet did not attempt a free throw until the 6:29 mark of the second period. An early theme of the ballgame that continued from the Highland game was the inability to close possessions with rebounds for the Dons. The Firehawks were getting second and third shots under the basket, which forced the Dons to have to defend for extended periods of time. Shalhevet began to dig in on the defensive end, creating steals and making it difficult for Verdugo’s guards to find easy looks. The Firehawks grabbed the momentum after a steal and breakaway layup pushed them out in front. From there, the Firehawks began to finally find success from the perimeter, knocking down two perimeter shots during a scoring run that saw them push their lead out to 29-24 before the halftime break.
The Dons began the second half playing well, using a 7-3 run to quickly cut the Shalhevet lead to 1-point. The atmosphere in the gym was intense, as one could expect. There was a brief pause in play because of a disagreement that emanated from the Shalhevet sideline and the Verdugo Hills section of supporters that resulted in a couple of fan ejections. After the incident was handled, both school’s supporters were given a warning to keep emotions in check by the referees before the game resumed. The disruption worked in favor of the Shalhevet. After the game resumed, the Firehawks proceeded to go on a 12-0 run to blow the game open. The 13-point deficit was the largest the Dons had faced since January 22nd, when they trailed by 15 at halftime against East Valley league rival Poly. The natural attrition of a long season and an extended playoff run looked like it had begun to take its toll on the Dons. They were showing signs of fatigue and were in danger of getting run out of the building if they couldn’t get things turned around. After a Maria Vukic basket before the buzzer, the Dons faced a 46-35 deficit with only a quarter remaining to try to keep their state championship push alive.
Whenever the Dons have found themselves in a tight spot, they have turned to their dynamic backcourt to get things going, and this final push to save the season would be no different. After a Shalhevet basket to extend the lead, Mosley and Nicole Vanegas went to work trying to bring the squad back from the brink of elimination. Led by the two co-captains, the Dons went on a quick 8-0 scoring barrage to take a double-digit deficit and cut the Shalhevet lead to 48-43. One of the biggest moments in the contests ensued when the Firehawks broke the Verdugo Hills full court press and nailed a wide open three from the corner. The basket deflated the crowd and it appeared that the Firehawks were in position to put the game away. Instead of folding the tents, T]the Dons, led by Mosley and Vanegas, continued to fight back. After a Shalhevet basket pushed the lead back to 8, Mosley came up huge, drawing a charge on the defensive end and then knocked down a three on the offensive end of the floor.
Senior co-captain Ayana Peterson-Henry, who had a tough game trying to fight through injury drew her fifth and final foul with a little over two minutes to go in the contest. It was a big blow to the Dons, as Peterson-Henry is the central cog to their defense. If Verdugo Hills were going to come back, they would have to do it without her. After the Shalhevet free throws, Vanegas answered with a three. The Dons showed their mettle by digging in on defense and getting a stop they had to have, which led to a big Vanegas three pointer to cut a once 13-point deficit down to 55-54. With 1:18 left on the clock, it was anyone’s game. The Dons certainly had their chances, as they just couldn’t find success from the field or the foul line with their chances in the final minute. A basket from Schwartz pushed the Firehawks lead to 57-54 with 50 seconds left, but they missed all four of their free throws in the waning seconds that would have put the game away. The Dons had one more shot at tying the game when Elaine Oh had a good look at a three pointer at the buzzer, but it hit the back rim and fell out. The final horn sounded, and the Dons were eliminated.
The loss ends the Dons’ run just two victories short of a trip to Sacramento to play for a state championship. It was a valiant attempt at a comeback that, to their credit, they almost accomplished. The lesson learned that many of the girls will take going forward is that the margins of error are slim when the level of competition gets tougher as you make deep runs into the postseason. “We are disappointed. We didn’t play our best. The biggest issue was Ayana’s injury and the fact that she couldn’t move her feet defensively, which led to her foul trouble. Without her we can be limited offensively and that was our problem in the second and third quarters,” said Coach Peterson-Henry on the issues that the team had to fight through in the close playoff loss. “We played so calm against Highland, but we were a little rushed and out of sorts in this game. We allowed them to get to the rim on defense and that was the difference ultimately in the game.”
Despite the heartbreak of a season ending loss, the Dons have nothing to hang their heads about. Already the most successful season the girls program has had in the school’s history, the mood around the team and its supporters is not one of grief, but one of celebration and promise. Celebrating the accomplishments of the graduating members and all the hardware they have added to the trophy case, while also looking ahead at how the talented returning girls will look to continue to build the program into one of the best in the city-section. “I’m just so proud of them and how they developed as a group. The effort, the togetherness, the support for one another, it’s everything you want in a team,” said Peterson-Henry when reflecting on his overall feelings on the team this season. “I just feel so lucky to be a part of it. The girls should be so proud of their work and how they represented the school in all the right ways. These girls are growing into great leaders of women.”