Left Natalie Moy of the Beverly Hills Girls Varsity basketball team is unable to prevent Kristian Johnson from the Santa Monica High School Girls Varsity basketball team from driving to the basket inside the Swingym located on the campus of Beverly Hills High School on Friday February 4th 2011 as Beverly hosted SAMO in an ocean league game and lost 58-31 (photo by Morgan Genser)

SAMOHI — Better defense. Check. More offensive movement. Check. Improved shooting. Check.

Santa Monica High School’s head girls’ basketball coach Marty Verdugo has been preaching those three keys to success and it appears his Vikings are starting to get the picture.

It all came together on Friday at Beverly Hills where the Vikings romped on their Ocean League rival, 58-21. Senior point guard Kristina “KJ” Johnson led the Vikings with 13 points. Long Beach State-bound forward Bianka Balthazar added nine points. Verdugo said that his team executed on all levels as the Vikings prepare to enter the California Interscholastic Federation Southern Section Division 1AA playoffs next week.

“We had better spacing and we moved the ball around,” Verdugo said. “We have really improved in our key areas. Right away you can see the difference.”

The win was just the second in a row for the 17-8 Vikings, who improved to 6-2 in league, but Verdugo said that he sees a renewed competitiveness in his team. For the first time all year, he said that he can see fire in their eyes.

“When I saw that I knew [Friday’s game against Beverly Hills] was going to be a good night,” he added.

With just two games left in the regular season — both at home — Verdugo said he wants to use this as a springboard to another deep playoff run. Last year, the Vikings won the first CIF-SS title in the sport in school history and hope to end this season with a similar result.

Last season’s title bumped up the Vikings into the more competitive Division 1AA, where the likes of Mater Dei, Brea Olinda and Long Beach Poly have dominated for years. But, this year may be different for Samohi. The Vikings have already played and lost to both Mater Dei and Poly, but Verdugo believes that gives his team an edge heading into any potential rematch in the playoffs.

Much like league play, the second time around facing a team breeds familiarity.

“I think we can play with those guys,” Verdugo said. “There were times in both those games that we were in it. That gives me confidence when we have to face them again.”

Despite having one eye on the playoffs, Verdugo said he’s keeping his other eye on Morningside and Hawthorne, this week’s opponents.

To prepare, Verdugo said he plans to take his team to the local YWCA where he’ll lower the rims to 8 feet to give his team an opportunity to play above the rim just to see how it feels.

“We’ll see who can dunk,” he said. “It should be fun.”


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