By Fred Altieri
A self-imposed wakeup call was made as a sense of urgency fell upon the Culver City High boys basketball team late in the fourth quarter of Friday night's game at Hawthorne High.
Looming in the background was the Centaurs previous two losses, also due to not securing the fourth quarter. And a sigh of relief went up after the Centaurs withstood a valiant comeback attempt by the host Cougars, 77-66.
Culver had a 65-47 lead with seven minutes remaining in the game. The lead would dwindle to six points with a few minutes remaining. This seemed an unlikely scenario based on how the game had been flowing.
From the opening tip the Centaurs controlled the pace and play despite a spirited Hawthorne team fighting to stay within striking distance. And they did until the third quarter.
Coach Adam Eskridge had his team ready and focused after recent events and results.
"During warm-ups we were really good and energetic. We were out early, sharp and ready to go," he said. "I felt we we're playing the right way, we were moving ball and our defense was pretty good."
Culver led 18-14 after one quarter despite some lukewarm shooting. "We weren't shooting real well to start off the game, that kind of came as they game went along. There were inconsistencies throughout the game.
"We weren't rebounding well on the defensive end and that helped Hawthorne hang around until the end of the game."
"We were feeling out where we needed to be on defense and offense in the first quarter. I felt like we were playing the right way. We were playing hard. We just couldn't get that early separation that we were looking for."
The separation started to come as the lead increased to nine points by halftime, 35-26. The Centaurs went for the knockout punch in the third quarter and seemed to have landed it. Two Culver guards were setting the tone according to Eskridge.
"The defense was leading into offense. Chris Edwards was getting steals left and right as was Isaac Girley. And all of a sudden we get to fourth quarter with a big lead and we have to immediately switch the mindset to: "Slow it down. Eat some clock."
Culver's game plan started to reveal some cracks despite its success. "We took some shots that led to them to getting run-outs and easy baskets.
"We were just going too fast. It was a fine line. Part of the reason why we built the lead up so much in the third quarter is that we were flying up and down at the pace I wanted us to play."
The Hawthorne faithful got into the act once their team made their move with many of their points coming from slashing the defensive weakside and three-pointers dropping from the left corner.
Eskridge witnessed "Their home crowd was great. It was loud in their place. Their team fed off of that energy. In high school basketball momentum is so big and they had it."
The Centaurs took a time-out when the lead dropped to six. Team leader Armani Nicolis stepped up to the plate. "Armani just put the team on his back offensively down the stretch. He had 24 points."
Eskridge liked how is team reacted to the adversity. "I told the team after the game that the way things have been going it would have been really easy for us to fold up shop and lose the game against Hawthorne. But we got our legs back under us. We took the punches from them and we extended that lead from six points back up to 11 points to end the game."
Two nights earlier in Inglewood the Centaurs were given an eye-opener in their 80-65 loss. They started the game off on the wrong foot and never recovered as they were down at the end of the first quarter 20-15. The Sentinels even threw down a few crowd-pleasing slam dunks to the delight of their fans, renowned band, cheer team and dance squad. The place was rocking.
Eskridge knew his team was in trouble from the start. "I usually am able to get a sense of where we're at by how we're warming up and on Wednesday night before the Inglewood game I did not like the feeling around us. And it turned out that we were down 10-1 at the start of the game.
"That killed us because we were chasing that nine-point deficit throughout the game. It buried us. I was hoping that we could make it up but the start was really what turned out to be the difference."