SAMOHI — Santa Monica High School’s girls’ basketball team’s quest for back-to-back championships began with a 52-39 win over Moreno Valley Rancho Verde Thursday on campus.

The Vikings overcame 20 turnovers to win the California Interscholastic Federation Southern Section Division 1AA game to advance to face Laguna Hills on Saturday at home. That game is scheduled for 7 p.m.

The Vikings were led by Long Beach State-bound Bianka Balthazar’s 18 points. Moriah Faulk, who has signed to play for UCLA, added 9 points.

“I’m a harsh grader,” said point guard Kristina “KJ” Johnson, who will play for the University of the Pacific next year. “So I give our effort a C. We committed too many turnovers.”

Despite the spotty play with the ball, Johnson said that the team came through when it mattered during a second half surge that put the game away.

But, before Samohi could take control of the game, Rancho Verde did its best to upset the No. 7 seeded Vikings. Despite being down from the early moments of the game, Rancho Verde was able to cut Samohi’s lead to just 3 points mid-way through the second quarter. Behind the shooting of sophomore guard Brandi Carter, who would finish the night with a team-high 13 points, the Mustangs seemed poised to make a run only to see it dashed by the play of Samohi senior forward Kalaria Obasi, who would score a pair of back-to-back baskets that built Samohi’s lead up to seven.

The Mustangs would keep the game close until the opening moments of the fourth quarter, but the defending champs proved to be too skilled and too experienced to let the game slip away. Sophomore Briana Harris helped the cause by sinking a pair of free throws and converting a lay-up on a fast break that put the Vikings up by 12 with 6 minutes to play.

“We finally started to take care of the ball,” Samohi head coach Marty Verdugo said. “We started to realize that if the play is not there, we should just slow it down a bit to look for our shot.”

Verdugo said that his team’s wealth of experience paid off in the final period as the Vikings advanced.

“I told the girls to remember that it isn’t about making a highlight reel, it’s about moving on to the next round,” he said.

daniela@smdp.com