SAMOHI — Santa Monica’s girls basketball team hopes that home is where the win is.
As the second-seeded Vikings prepare to host eighth-seeded Rancho Cucamonga in the third round of the California Interscholastic Federation Southern Section Division 1A Playoffs tonight at home, Head Coach Marty Verdugo said he’s excited about having home-court advantage, but is even more ready for the chance for his team to erase the memory of last season’s playoff experience.
The Vikings lost in the semi-finals to Canyon Springs last season, a feeling Verdugo doesn’t want to revisit.
“We would like to redeem ourselves from last year,” Verdugo said.
This is the fourth year in a row that the team has made it to the third round with last season representing the deepest the team has played into the postseason in Verdugo’s four years as head coach.
He’ll look to senior Thea Lemberger, who has been a key contributor since she stepped foot on campus, to lead the team on offense, but was clear to note the importance of point guard Kristina Johnson and shooting guard Lilly Feder. He praised both guards’ ability to make tough shots under duress and their all-around savvy play.
“As far as hitting big baskets … without them we’re not nearly as effective,” he said.
He said that Johnson’s ability to open up the defense allows Lemberger to focus on scoring, which is her strong suit.
Johnson’s sharp play at point guard has also elevated the rest of Samohi’s offensive players. Moriah Faulk, who transferred to Samohi this season from a school in Arizona, had proven to be a clutch performer late in the regular season, but has yet to appear in the playoffs.
Since injuring her knee during the last game of the regular season, Faulk has been a game-day decision. She was cleared to play by doctors on Tuesday, providing much-needed reinforcements. Verdugo said he will be wise with the way he plays her, monitoring her condition as the game progresses.
He doesn’t expect her to be at full-strength, but her shooting touch and aggressive play will be a boon for the Vikings as they attempt to return to the semifinals.
Aside from Faulk, the team has been forced to play without starting center Sabrina Norton. Her father, Ken Norton Jr., has accepted an offer to join former USC Head Coach Pete Carroll on the staff of the Seattle Seahawks. He removed her from school upon reaching the decision, creating a void in the Vikings’ starting lineup.
Filling that gap has been transfer Bianka Balthazar. Since being cleared by the CIF mid-season, she has been a force on the block giving the Vikings an added physical presence.
Verdugo said she’s been able to blossom of late and expects her to impose her will on Rancho Cucamonga’s post players.
Even without Norton, Verdugo said he likes his team’s size advantage, but admitted that Rancho Cucamonga’s team speed may give his Vikings fits on defense.
“We’re going to have to slow the game,” he said. “We have to play good defense and control the tempo offensively.
“I believe we’re more skilled.”
Verdugo encourages fans to wear either blue or gold to present the road team with “a sea of blue and gold.”