By Fred Altieri
The Culver City High girls basketball team gallantly fought for and secured its second consecutive invitation to the CIF Southern Section, Division 2AA championship game.
The Centaurs eliminated another powerhouse on the road, Norco High of Riverside County Tuesday night.
The 68-55 final score was the Centaurs’ sweetest victory of the season and especially considering that Norco was the scene of the team’s semifinal heartbreaking loss two years ago by four points.
Culver won on team play and talent against a taller, bigger and senior heavy lineup playing before a packed gym of rabid supporters who expected their team to repeat the past.
Culver head coach Julian Anderson spoke about his team: “The girls gave a complete effort and played as a team. It was a rewarding victory and I’m very proud of them.”
Michelle Curry opened the game with a three-pointer. It was a serious statement to Norco and it set the tone for her teammates. The Cougars were up to the task and took a 9-6 lead.
The seesaw battle continued as the Centaurs rebounded to a 14-11 lead at the end of the first quarter as Curry, Kailey Tooke and Kelsey Ueda scored the team’s points. This trend would continue throughout the rest of the game.
Anderson analyzed the start: “I didn’t feel like we had our offense going in the first half. We were able to stay in the game with talent.”
Katie Lin was part of that talent as she hit a three-pointer. Ueda was also getting warmed up as she added two more baskets and was on her way to a game-high 22 points. The Centaurs scored the last seven points of the half to increase their lead to 26-21. The home crowd was starting to feel a bit uneasy.
Both teams unleashed their offenses in the second half. Curry, Tooke and Ueda continued the charge as they combined for all 19 Culver points in the third quarter. Norco applied even greater pressure as they doubled their point total and scored 21 in the third quarter.
It was becoming another classic game and the standard set between the playoff rivals and the Centaurs were clinging to a very precarious 45-42 lead after three quarters.
The fourth opened with Curry scoring on a deft pass from a Ueda maneuvering the baseline. Lin then hit Norco with a body-punching three-pointer. And then she connected with an even more impacting one. Culver was now up 53-47 as the Centaur cheer squad was leading the well-represented and enthusiastic Culver fan base.
Anderson noted: “In the second half we played within our system, in a more controlled way which is what I prefer. That allowed us to be more efficient and score more points.”
The Cougars were not finished yet but were beginning to take chances to reduce the deficit with the clock winding down. Culver led 56-52, then 60-54 with 1:44 remaining in the game. That’s when Kelsey Ueda broke the Norco’s back. She ran down a ball off the sidelines, spun out of the left baseline corner, split two defenders and threw a bank off the glass to score while getting fouled.
One free throw later found the Centaurs up 63-54 with 1:24 to go. The Norco fans were now quiet as their team seemed resigned to an unwanted end to their season. Even when Curry, who scored 20 points, fouled out seconds later it didn’t the Cougars any life. Kailey Tooke, who added 16 points, left the game with less than a minute remaining due to an ankle injury sustained on a foul from behind as she was going in for a layup.
The game also marked the third year in a row that the Centaur girls have made the division semifinals under Coach Anderson who was already preparing as the team was boarding the bus for a long but satisfying journey back to Culver City.
“We’re going to work on some things in practice over the next few days and we’ll be ready to play Friday night for the championship.”