With each successive round the CIF Southern Section playoffs are getting more and more physical, and that is just fine for the Culver City High girls basketball team.
The Centaurs may be undersized, but so far they are proving that they can hold their own against bigger opponents by boxing out, rebounding and running the floor. Their toughness was put to the test again in Saturday night's quarterfinal game against Camarillo but they passed with flying colors, pulling away late for a 71-59 victory at Goodyear Gym.
Sixth-seeded Culver City (22-7) will travel to 10th-seeded Norco (17-13) for a Division 2A semifinal game Tuesday night. The winner advances to the finals Thursday at 8:15 p.m. in Anaheim against either top-seeded Foothill or fifth-seeded Murrieta Valley.
"We knew Camarillo was a tough team so we had a good practice before the game and we knew we had to come out with good defense and good offense," said Jade Neal, who led the Centaurs with 21 points before fouling out early in the fourth quarter.
Senior forward Lunden Junious, who tweaked her ankle in the first half, was held to five points, but was happy to be moving on.
"It was a little bit of a hard foul but I always recover, so I'm good," she said. "It feels great to [be in the semifinals]. I've been looking forward to this since my freshman year and we're finally here. I'm so excited, but I'll stay humble."
The Centaurs went undefeated on their way to the Ocean League title and have won 13 of their last 14 games overall. They have won their three playoff games by an average of 14.3 points.
"They'll be bigger girls the deeper we go [in the playoffs], but I have to be a lot tougher mentally and physically," said 5-foot-8 forward Mithzy Hernandez, who scored 12 points. "I was nervous at first because of their height and they are good, but I got in a rhythm and was able to do what I do best and succeed against the tall girls. We were evenly matched, but in the end I believe it was our teamwork that brought us together and made us individually stronger."
Five players did all of the Centaurs' scoring, but that proved to be more than enough as Camarillo never crept closer than 10 points in the fourth quarter.
"We kept our heads in the game, we stuck together as a team and played our hardest," said Kelsey Ueda, who scored 15 points off the bench. "Our mindset was this might be our last game and we didn't want that to happen. We want to go all the way."
The Scorpions (23-7) pulled to within three points with 3:08 left in the third quarter, but Culver City withstood the charge and built the lead back to double digits, 55-45, by the start of the fourth quarter. Neal keyed the surge, scoring 10 of her points in the third quarter.
"That came from experience," Centaurs Coach Julian Anderson said. "A couple of years ago we would've folded. This year I think our poise is a lot better, we're not buying into runs, we're starting to hold the storm and we're doing good."
Camarillo, which tied for first place in the Pacific View League with Rio Mesa, was sparked by sophomore guards Geraldynn Leaupepe (21 points) and twin sister Geralynn Leaupepe (18 points). The Scorpions defeated Mira Costa in the first round and Moorpark in the second round.
"We just didn't have the stamina tonight," Camarillo Coach Michaeltore Smith said. "They kind of ran us out of the gym. I'm proud of my girls and I'm very happy with the way the season went for us."
Culver City's senior point guard and captain Taylor Tanita played her usual efficient game, getting teammates involved while scoring 18 points herself, including eight of 10 from the free throw line, and driving into the paint trying to draw fouls.
"It's tough because in the first half the referees were calling all of them and in the second half they didn't call any of them, so they were kind of inconsistent," Tanita said. "It was hard to understand."
Despite a bit of a slow start, Culver City led 16-11 by the end of the opening quarter and took a 35-21 lead into halftime.
"At first we weren't playing together, but we stepped up to the plate," senior guard Markie Samler said. "The reason they got it to six is that we were getting too much into the individual stuff. We needed to pick up the intensity and we did."
The Centaurs were outscored 24-20 in a torrid third quarter, but still held a comfortable lead going into the final eight minutes.
"It was a very intense game," Centaurs assistant coach Allison Tanaka said. "We had spurts where we let them go on little runs, but we were able to stop the bleeding and I'm so proud of all the girls from 1 to 14. It's a testament to our maturity that they understood they weren't going to win it on one possession. They understood just stop and score, stop and score and they didn't panic."
Norco tied for sixth place in the Big VIII League but upset second-seeded Perris, 61-57, on Saturday night. The Cougars were led by seniors Deanna Johnson (21 points and seven rebounds) and Shelby Howard (12 points and five rebounds).
"When we get to these other schools their guards are going to be as tall as our centers but what I love about Mithzy and I love about our posts is that they don't back down," Tanaka said. "They'll go against someone who is 100 pounds heavier than they are and they don't care, they're going to play as hard as they always do. That's one of the intangibles of our team."