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Right Bianka Balthazar from the Santa Monica High School Girls Basketball team jumps into the air on her way to putting back a rebound over the outstrecthed arm of Kimberley Lamberson from the Hawthorne HIgh School girls basketball team inside the North Gym on the campus of Santa Monica High School on Friday Februrary 11th 2011 as SAMO hosted Hawthorne in an ocean league basketball game and won 66-30 (photo by Morgan Genser)

SAMOHI — As Santa Monica High School’s heralded girls’ basketball team suffered through a mid-season slump, they couldn’t help but think something was missing.

The team began the year 9-0, but losses against some of the top teams in the nation seemed to knock the wind out of the defending California Interscholastic Federation Southern Section Division 1A champs.

Sure, the team is loaded with a trio of NCAA Division 1 recruits, led by UCLA-bound Moriah Faulk, but they seemed to be lacking something during surprising losses to Ocean League opponents.

But, something happened that both players and coaches said brought them out of their funk — they began to play together.

“We’re playing with more heart,” Head Coach Marty Verdugo said as his team prepared for a first-round CIF-SS Division 1AA playoff matchup tonight at home against Moreno Valley Rancho Verde. “Heart can mean a lot of different things. We have to be connected at the heart in order to be great. We’re late bloomers in that category.”

Proof was in the putting as Samohi romped over its final four league opponents. With wins by as many as 36 points, it appears that the Vikings are peaking at the right time.

Despite the strong finish, Samohi, the No. 7 seed in the division, finished second in league to Inglewood, giving them added motivation as they return to defend their crown.

Verdugo said that assimilating new players into his system also played a part in bringing his team together. While two of those so-called new players were Faulk and Bianka Balthazar, a pair of transfers who were not granted eligibility until late last season, Verdugo said that they still faced a steep learning curve heading into this season as they assumed leadership roles.

“Sometimes it takes a little bit longer to form a bond,” he said. “But, we made a decision that we wanted to be better than we were playing. We ultimately have competitors on the team that want to win.”

It appears that notion has taken root with Verdugo’s players.

“We just got tired of losing,” the Long Beach State-bound Balthazar said with a laugh. “We were really bummed about losing league. That was motivation in itself. We realized we needed to come together to make this work.”

The Vikings’ resolve will be tested tonight against a Rancho Verde team that finished the year with an impressive 22-4 record.

Verdugo said that his team should be prepared for a Rancho Verde squad that is fast and athletic. Despite playing a number of freshman and sophomores, he said that they run a stifling full-court press that betrays their youth.

“With a successful press, they can go on big runs if you don’t take care of the ball,” Verdugo said.

To that end, Verdugo and his staff have run seven-on-five drills that forces the starting offense to cope with more defenders on the court. He figures that if they can beat that type of pressure, they should be fine tonight.

That work has resonated with senior point guard Kristina “KJ” Johnson, who has signed to play for the University of the Pacific next year.

“We have to play how we know we can play,” Johnson said. “We have to start putting together all four quarters.”

daniela@smdp.com

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