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Whitney girls struggle early, pull away late for big win

By Loren Kopff

As the Whitney girls basketball team steamrolls towards its fourth straight Academy League title and sixth in the past eight seasons, competition for the Lady Wildcats is hard to find. But this past Tuesday night, St. Margaret’s provided that little burst of push for Whitney.
The Lady Wildcats trailed throughout most of the first quarter but opened the second quarter on a 14-2 run and went on to slam the Tartans 62-45 in a battle of the top two teams in the league. Whitney, the ninth ranked team in the California Interscholastic Federation-Southern Section Division IV-AA poll, improved to 16-2 overall and 4-0 in league. St. Margaret’s, ranked 12th in Division IV-A, dropped to 12-5 overall and 3-1 in the circuit.
“I think they live to beat us,” said Whitney head coach Jeff Day. “They haven’t beaten us in four seasons. They have a couple of good seniors who have never beaten Whitney. They’re not going to lie down. They want to beat us; they’re playing for a league championship.”
Day pointed out that the top two players who were going to score for St. Margaret’s were Yamilli Burgos and Julianna Coleman and sure enough, that was the case. Both scored five points in the opening quarter, then Burgos sank a pair of three-pointers each in the second and third quarters.
“There were no surprises,” Day said. “Even since last year, [Burgos and Coleman] were going to score 85-90 percent of their points and they were going to shoot three-pointers. They did exactly what I thought they were going to do.”
Meanwhile, senior Reyna Ta’amu was keeping Whitney in the game in the first quarter, scoring eight points while her tag team partner, senior Rachel Nagel, had six steals and two rebounds in the opening stanza, despite scoring just two points. But with a slim 18-14 lead early in the second quarter, Nagel took over and left the Tartans playing a game of ‘come and get me’ the rest of the way.
Nagel scored nine straight points as the Lady Wildcats increased their lead to 27-14 with 3:38 left in the half. During that stretch, she scored on one of her 13 defensive rebounds, then one on one of her 13 steals, and finally completed a non-traditional three-point play.
“We’ve been starting slow with no sense of urgency,” Day said. “Some of it is because they haven’t had a close game since before Christmas. But I’ve told them if you give a team that’s decent a chance to be in a ball game, you never know what’s going to happen.”
After St. Margaret’s had cut the Whitney lead to nine points (29-20), the hosts reeled off nine straight points to end the half. Nagel and Ta’amu combined to score 28 of the team’s 38 points in the first half. The closest the Tartans would get in the second half was 14 points after Coleman hit her second trifecta of the game.
But the Lady Wildcats would keep their lead hovering around 20 points and went up 62-40 with 2:29 left in the game on a three-pointer from senior Alyssa Wakamiya. That would be Whitney’s largest lead of the game.
Nagel led everyone with 26 points, her highest in four league games this season, while Ta’amu added 23 points, also her high in league this season.
Despite the number of double digit victories Whitney has already strung together, Day pointed out some areas that the team needs to improve on in order to get even that much better for the playoffs and even go far in the postseason.
“Defense, conserving energy, sticking with the game plan and not trying to do too much,” he said. “Most of the girls understand their roles and for the next month, they have to get in better shape. When we get to the playoffs, we’re only going to use one or two subs.”
Following the game, the Whitney boys squad continued to swim as little fish in the big pond that is the Academy League, succumbing to St, Margaret’s 68-36. The Tartans opened the game on an 18-1 run and never let Whitney get closer than 14 points the remainder of the game.
“We lacked effort and energy,” said Whitney head coach Ruben Guerrero. “They’re still young and they’re learning how to get focused and prepare for a game.”
Sophomore Luigi Gonzales led Whitney with nine points on three perimeter shots while junior Antony Thomas added eight points and six rebounds as nine different players scored for the Wildcats, who dropped to 5-12 overall and 1-4 in league action.
Both Whitney teams will visit rival Oxford Academy tonight to end the first round of league play. The Wildcats will then travel to Downey Calvary Chapel on Tuesday night. For the boys, their lone league win came against Downey Calvary Chapel on Jan. 7. But two of their four league losses have been by a combined 12 points.
“Going into the second round of the season, we’re definitely going to need some help from other teams to put us in a position to make the playoffs,” Guerrero said. “If we split with [Sage Hill and Crean Lutheran] and get some help from around the league, we could possibly squeak into the playoffs. But overall, my general concern is just having these guys mentally focused and ready for each game and getting to play aggressive.”