By Fred Altieri
It wasn't the kind of Senior Night ending the Culver City High boys basketball team had dreamt about.
The team was on the verge of having staged an against-all-odds comeback when Wes Dixon buried a clutch three-pointer from the left corner that tied the score at 77-77 with 7.3 seconds left in regulation. The Centaurs clearly had the momentum on their home court in Del Goodyear Gymnasium as their fans went wild in celebration.
But the tides were not with them as a questionable foul call with 1.1 seconds remaining sent Hawthorne High to the free throw line. Two converted points later and a desperation 35-foot launch that was long enough but just left of the rim as time expired silenced a stunned crowd, 79-77.
Culver needs a victory at Beverly Hills High in the last Ocean League game of the season this Thursday, February 13, to retain hope of making the CIF playoffs that begin next week.
They would still need an open invitation by the playoff committee as only the top three teams in league are guaranteed to advance into the post season.
Before the game head coach Adam Eskridge spoke of his team's determination: "It's a great feeling as a coach to know that we're never going to throw in the towel. We're always going to fight even if we don't have it offensively on certain nights.
"It's a testament to the character of these guys. They have pride in themselves and the team to play that way."
The game started off on the wrong foot offensively for the Centaurs as Hawthorne jumped out to a 25-13 lead after the first quarter. The lead was cut by halftime to 49-41 as the Culver shooting began to awaken. But the visiting Cougars repeatedly hit crucial three-pointers each time the Centaurs were just shy of grabbing the reins on numerous occasions.
Perhaps the virtual nail in the coffin was occurred when a questionable call was made when Culver found themselves down by only one point with possession of the ball and 1:17 remaining in the game. They appeared to have been fouled near the far sideline clearly forcing them out of bounds but one of the referees ruled no foul, possession Hawthorne.
Meanwhile, the other referee was shaking his head in sympathy with the disbelieving Centaur players pleading their case on the non-reviewable call.
Ultimately, Culver was unable to break a pattern that had developed predominantly throughout this Ocean League season. They often fell behind early, fought like mad to catch up only to fall short at the end. The previous week's 69-55 loss at Santa Monica High reflected as much.
Eskridge talked about that game: "Santa Monica came out super fired-up. We were a lot on our heels. That led to some missed shots that we ordinarily make. They made transition layup after layup after layup in the first quarter. The shots we were getting were long contested jump shots leading to fast breaks by SaMo."
He acknowledged that the Centaurs were resilient but spent a lot energy getting back into the game: "It was a great job by our guys coming back. My message to them was, "Keep cutting the lead." We had SaMo nervous towards the end of the game. But we just quite couldn't get over the hump.
"We hit that two-minute mark and started to run out of gas. Then they hit a big three-pointer and the little bit of light that we had was sucked out of us."
Two nights later in a Friday home game was a different script but the same ending as the Culver suffered their second loss of the season against rival Inglewood, 62-48.
This time the Centaurs were the ones who jumped all over their opponent from the opening tip. They controlled the boards and tempo as they led 16-10 after one quarter and kept the margin at six points by halftime, 34-28.
Eskridge saw his team primed for success: "Our guys were really fired up against Inglewood. We wanted to keep them out of transition because that's one way how they killed us in the first game. Our focus was to make sure we got back and to rebound. We outrebounded them 22-10 in the first half. We kept them out of the paint and kept holding them to one shot per possession. We did that for three quarters."
But another fourth quarter proved to be unkind for the Centaurs. That's when the Sentinels took over control of the boards and with it the game. Culver was mentally up for the challenge but had expended valuable energy: "Throughout the game, it was the most we were mentally engaged. We had to adjust on the fly to what they were doing. We put in so much energy on defense in the backcourt that we didn't have any legs to shoot late in the game."