Palisades High School is the only school in Southern California to have its boys and girls basketball teams both play in the CIF State Regional finals on March 10.
The 12 winning teams on Tuesday will compete for state titles in Sacramento on March 14, facing off against the Northern California champions.
To reach the regional playoffs, the PaliHi boys beat Narbonne 50-38 in the City Section Division I finals on February 29, and the girls beat Hamilton 60-44 to win the City Open Division championship.
The girls team proceeded to beat Mission Hills (San Marcos) 59-42, Crean Lutheran (Irvine) 54-42 and Mater Dei Catholic (Chula Vista) 60-55. They will now host Santa Monica at 5 p.m. on Tuesday.
The Pali boys will play Bakersfield Christian at 7 p.m. Tuesday, also at home. They reached the finals by beating Independence (Bakersfield) 57-52, San Ysidro (San Diego) 56-49 and St. Pius X-St. Matthias Academy (Downey) 49-45.
Local basketball fans are also winners, having a chance to see some outstanding high school talent in Tuesday’s doubleheader.
Girls Beat Mater Dei Catholic, 60-55
The Dolphins led 14-10 after one quarter and 35-29 at halftime. The Crusaders made adjustments in the second half and managed to pull within three points with three minutes left in the third quarter.
But sophomore Demoni Lagway hit two straight baskets to stretch Pali’s lead to 48-41 at quarter’s end.
Lagway, junior Alexis Pettis and senior Jane Nwaba all made baskets, but Mater Dei rallied again to cut the lead to 54-52 with four minutes to play. Then the same three Dolphins each added another basket to seal the victory.
Lagway finished with 19 points, Nwaba had 13 and Pettis 12.
Pali Coach Adam Levine praised Mater Dei, noting that “They were the most athletic team we’ve faced. We knew the game was rebounds and getting the ball back up.”
Lagway was called three times for traveling, something that she had not been called for all season. “She came off the floor, settled down and went back in and hit the next three baskets,” Levine said.
He’s looking forward to the Santa Monica game. “It’s a fun rivalry [between non-league foes],” he said. The Dolphins beat the Vikings in January, 59-56.
Nwaba, the sole senior on the team, who has committed to Pepperdine next year, said: “It was a good game [against Mater Dei]. They got us a little on the rebounds. They were physical, but we adjusted.”
When former girls head coach Torino Johnson left Pali in 2017, most of his players transferred to private schools. As a sophomore, Nwaba was the sole returning player who had seen some playing time, and the team struggled that year, going 9-17 overall and winning only two league games.
Now in 2020, “This is far different,” Nwaba said. “We’re all good at shooting and passing it off. This is a whole team that works together.” (The Dolphins are now 25-9 overall after going 12-0 in league).
Boys Take Down St. Pius X-St. Matthias Academy
When Donzell Hayes became Pali’s boys basketball coach in 2016, the program was in disarray. The previous coach had resigned just a week before the season started. Yet Hayes had high hopes for his kids. “This is a special group,” he said. “I don’t see any limits to these guys.” Turns out his optimism has helped transform the program.
After Pali’s 49-45 home victory over St. Pius X on Saturday, Hayes said: “We belong here. I believed in the players. The only thing left to do was putting the nose to the ground and doing the work. That was the plan.”
“No one thought we would be here but us,” Hayes added. “They just keep finding ways to win.”
He was asked if he believes his program, which is overshadowed in the Western League by powerhouses Westchester and Fairfax, will now get the respect it deserves.
“We didn’t get the respect,” Hayes said. “We took the respect.”
Said Caden Arnold, a 6’4” senior, “I knew we had a chance to go really far. It’s amazing to see how much I’ve grown [as a player] and how much the team has grown.”
The Warriors led only once, at 3-2, but then the Dolphins settled in and went on a wild run to lead 15-3 at the end of the first quarter. That lead was cut to 26-20 at halftime. The third quarter ended 36-29. With five minutes left in the game, the Warriors closed to within three points 38-35.
With three minutes left, a shove over an out-of-bounds ball resulted in a double technical foul. Both the Warriors and Pali were penalized, resulting in free throws for both teams and 43-37 score. In the remaining time, Pali scored six more points, Warriors added eight, but it wasn’t enough and Pali won 49-45.
The Dolphins’ top scorers were senior Graham Alphson (6’4”) with 12 and Dylan Griffin (6’0″) and Sheldon Zanders (6’0″) with 10. Alphson had 12 rebounds and Arnold led in assists.
“This is certainly the furthest that Pali has ever advanced [in the state playoffs],” Hayes said. “The universe works in your favor. It’s here, we have the cake already, everything else from here on out is icing.”
“To go through this journey with them . . . they’ll take it with them forever.”