By Fred Altieri
What a difference a game makes. Last week, teetering on the edge before finally securing an invitation to the CIF Southern Section playoffs, the Culver City High boys basketball team made the most of it by practicing with purpose and intent.
And it paid off as the Centaurs went on the road to convincingly eliminate Westminster High, 68-47, a team that went undefeated in the Golden West League.
All the pieces seemed to have fallen into place when the Centaurs took a 13-10 first quarter lead against a soon-visibly frustrated Lion squad.
Culver head coach Adam Eskridge had a good feeling about the game: "The guys were loose on the bus going to Westminster. We were ready to go and it showed in our play. We were the underdogs and we were going to leave it all out on the court. That sense was around us all week including the practices following the Beverly loss."
The team's goals were to not allow Westminster to get its crowd involved, squelch any confidence they might gather and make them nervous. Eskridge wanted his team to define itself: "We wanted to let them know that we weren't the typical 11-15 team and we came from one of the best leagues in Southern California. We were battle-tested and we weren't going to be some pushover.
"Part of our focus all week was that we were going to come out with great energy and defense so that we could control the tempo and get them nervous and on their heels."
Team leaders Armani Nicolis, Chris Edwards and Isaac Girley led the charge from the opening tip-off and galvanized the team to a 33-20 halftime lead. The game didn't seem that close as the team went into the locker room full of confidence.
Eskridge offered: "Our guys could sense that they were not as quick and were not in good shape as us. That killer instinct that I've been looking for finally showed up Thursday night. We came out in the second half excited and ready to bury them. And that's what we did."
Culver was playing the game without one of its key seniors, Wes Dixon, who rolled his ankle during practice two days earlier. And as fate would have it, a number of players came off the bench, stepped up and delivered.
Eskridge had praise for one of his seldom used players: "Kyle Johnson is only a sophomore and our most athletic player. A week or two ago my assistant coach and I thought that Kyle was just about ready. He was starting to play more with his head on his shoulders, was more confident and showed that he understood what we were trying to do as a team."
He continued: "Man, did he answer the call. He was unbelievable. He blocked shots, he rebounded and he scored points. Just the energy he had. Their best player hit a three pointer on him and the next time down the court Kyle went up hard and blocked that player's shot. He played such a great game in so many ways. We were so impressed and so happy for him."
Equally effective was the psychological and physical impact delivered by the defensive play of Kevin Beacham, the same student-athlete who earned first team all-league honors as a defensive back this past season for the Ocean League football champion Centaurs.
It was his no-holds barred, smothering full-court coverage that was emblematic of Culver's stifling defense all night against a clearly collapsing Lion offense.
By the end of the third quarter the final result was a foregone conclusion as Culver reeled off 19 more points while increasing its lead to 52-35. Westminster began losing energy and playing with resignation. Eskridge and his players knew it also: "They were starting to get tired. They only played five guys. The two subs they put in only played about three or four minutes combined."
He was also able to insert reserves into the game and enjoy the evening: "I got a couple of the senior guys who don't play very much into the playoff game, which was really nice. Both teams were fired up but respectful after the game. Even when we shook hands after the game every one of their players looked you in the eye. There was a good feeling in that gym without a doubt. For us to have been consistent throughout the game was great. That's what we've been looking for all year and it finally showed up."
Even the long bus ride home was rewarding. "The guys had a lot of fun on the bus ride home. Then they got a little quiet but as we got closer to home they got all fired up and loud again. They deserved to have a lot of fun."