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Center forward Kunnu Shofu of the Santa Monica High School Boys Varsity basketball team jumps up in to air to make an attempt at a basket in between several members of the Culver City High School boys vasity basketball team inside the north gym located on on the campus of Santa Monica High on Friday January 23rd 2008 as SAMO hosted Culver in a Southen Sectional Ocean League basketball and lost 52-46 which caused their record to fall 1-3 in the league and 14-5 overall (photo by Morgan Genser)

SAMOHI — Santa Monica High School boys basketball coach James Hecht is searching for answers.

His Vikings were 13-2 entering Ocean League play and ranked in the top 20 in the state by MaxPreps. Big things were in the offing.

That’s when Morningside High School came to town. Instead of a win on its own court, Samohi lost 68-69 in overtime. Just two days later, the Vikings traveled to Inglewood High hoping to win its first league game.

Inglewood didn’t oblige.

The Sentinels routed the Vikings, 51-74.

Two games, two losses. Last season’s Ocean League champ was forced to lick its wounds and forge ahead.

“There isn’t an easy answer [for the losses],” Hecht said. “Losing the season opener, emotionally, was deflating.”

The Vikings have since won two of three and took on Morningside, which is undefeated in league play, in a rematch on Friday night. The score wasn’t available as of presstime.

With the two wins — over Hawthorne and Beverly Hills — the team appears to be back on track, Hecht said. The team is now 15-5 overall and 2-3 in league, which puts them in a tie for third place. The top three teams are automatically awarded a spot in the California Interscholastic Federation Southern Section playoffs.

He attributed the slow start partially due to a rash of injuries that have plagued some of his top players since league play began earlier this month.

Senior forward Kunnu Shofu, who is getting looks from major college programs, injured his thumb in the league opener. Terry Horn broke his nose and was forced to play with a mask for a couple of games. Senior guard James Montgomery has been hobbled by an Achilles tendon strain.

“We seemed to lose our intensity and aggressiveness,” Hecht said of the losses. “We’re just trying to stay focused. The message remains the same.”

With most of those players on the mend and cleared to play, Hecht expects to be ready for the second half of its league schedule.

“I think we are still in the hunt,” Hecht added.

Before the Vikings can get back to work in the Ocean, they will travel to Fairfax High School to take part in the school’s State Preview Classic on Saturday, which pits five top teams from Los Angeles County against five from San Diego County. The one-day extravaganza will feature Samohi against Oceanside El Camino at 3 p.m.; L.A.’s Price High takes on San Diego Torrey Pines; Winward takes on San Diego’s Hoover; Campbell Hall faces Long Beach Poly; the featured game is Etiwanda taking on Woodland Hills Taft.

While the weekend event forces Santa Monica to play two games in two days, Hecht welcomes the challenge. He said that some believe it takes away from focusing on league games. He disagrees.

He understands why some see playing in these types of events as a distraction, but believes that the players enjoy facing new competition.

He anticipates that Oceanside’s physicality may give his Vikings a bit of a hard time. Hecht said that Saturday’s opponent is aggressive at both ends and likes to pound the ball in the paint.

“We have to pressure their ball handlers,” Hecht said. “We’ll also try to bring their big guys away from the basket a little bit.”

Senior guard Donte Bowie agrees with Hecht’s assessment of Oceanside. But, after watching game tape, the defensive-minded Bowie believes that the key to victory will be the pace of the game.

Santa Monica likes to run a full-court press from buzzer to buzzer, which Bowie feels will give his Vikings a slight advantage.

“Offensively they like to walk the ball up unless it’s a fast break,” Bowie said. “They want to slow down the game.

“As long as we keep the game at a fast pace, we should tire them out.”

daniela@smdp.com

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