PHOENIX, Ariz. — Despite a slow 0-2 start at the elite Nike Tournament of Champions, Santa Monica High School’s girls’ basketball team finished strong, winning its final two games to take home 13th place in the field of 16 teams from across the nation and Canada.

The Samohi Vikings wrapped up play Wednesday by defeating Oakland Bishop O’Dowd, 53-39, at Perry High School in Phoenix. Bishop O’Dowd is considered one of the top teams from Northern California.

“It was our best defensive performance of the year,” Head Coach Marty Verdugo said. “We really made it difficult for them to score.”

Samohi’s Bianka Balthazar, who has signed to play for Long Beach State next season, led the Vikings with 14 points. Sophomore Briana Harris added 11 despite leaving the game in the first half following a hard fall after forcing a Bishop O’Dowd player to commit a charging foul. Verdugo said she was woozy following the spill and decided to hold her out for the remainder of the game.

The victory was the second in two days for Samohi. The Vikings dispatched Ontario Canada’s St. Mary’s on Tuesday after dropping two games to open the tournament.

The Nike Tournament of Champions Joe Smith Elite Division featured seven of the top 25 teams in the country, according to the USA Today poll. Samohi faced just one of those top teams in Bolingbrook of Illinois, which entered the game ranked No. 2 in the nation. The Vikings lost, 59-48, but the showing gave the Vikings, ranked No. 6 in the latest California Interscholastic Federation Southern Section Division 1 poll, reason to believe they could compete with the nation’s — and Canada’s — best.

Samohi leaves the tourney 10-2 overall as they prepare for a 10-day break.

The showing in Arizona was promising for Verdugo and his girls as they attempt to defend their CIF-SS championship from a year ago.

According to Verdugo’s plan to play the toughest schedule possible this season, the Vikings have a big January ahead. They are scheduled to play Santa Ana Mater Dei on Jan. 8 on the road. They will also play Long Beach Poly on the road on Jan. 22. To make matters even more pressure-packed, the Vikings also open Ocean League play next month.

Mater Dei also played in the Nike tournament, but were defeated by Long Beach Poly in the quarterfinals. Poly played Brea Olinda for the tourney title on Wednesday night, but results from that game were not available at presstime.

As the Vikings move forward, Verdugo said he would have liked to have done better at the tournament, but found that his team “can play with anybody.”

daniela@www.smdp.com

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