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OLYMPIC LEAGUE BASKETBALL : Valley Christian girls has poor shooting night, runs out of time against Whittier Christian

By Loren Kopff • @LorenKopff on Twitter

The Valley Christian High girls basketball team ended the first round of Olympic League play falling to Whittier Christian High 53-49 on Jan. 17. With a chance to better their chances of a third place finish in league and a CIF-Southern Section playoff spot on the line, the Lady Defenders once again fell short against the Heralds.

V.C., once down by 11 points late in the first half, crawled back to trail by two points nearly midway through the fourth quarter but couldn’t get that tying or go-ahead basket in a 43-37 loss this past Tuesday. V.C. finishes the regular season at 12-15 overall and 3-5 in league action, but did get some help when last place Heritage Christian High knocked off Maranatha High 46-43, leaving the Minutemen a game behind V.C. Maranatha would travel to second place Whittier Christian on Feb. 6 and a Maranatha loss would put V.C. into the playoffs.

“I thought at times we were a little impatient,” said V.C. first-year head coach Gene Bras. “There were some shots that we usually hit that didn’t fall tonight. But I give them credit, too. They’re a pretty good defensive team, too.”

Both teams combined to connect on six of 23 field goals in the opening quarter as the Lady Defenders could only get a three-pointer from senior McKenna Bushong and a basket from junior Jordan Ebalo. Senior Olivia Vande Vegte’s bucket with 4:04 left in the first half made it an 11-9 contest before the visitors capped off the half on a 9-2 run.

The lack of shooting continued in the third quarter as V.C. trailed by 10 points three times and got seven of its 11 points in the stanza from Ebalo. Then in the fourth quarter, Ebalo scored five points and Bushong added a three-pointer as the Lady Defenders trailed 32-30 with 4:29 remaining in the game. 

But over two minutes later, Aidan Sherfey hit a big three-pointer to put the Heralds up 39-33. It was the beginning of a 6-0 run that would put Whittier Christian up 42-33.

“They had some big shots too,” Bras said. “[Aidan] Sherfey had a couple of threes at a key juncture. We just couldn’t get that one stop or that one rebound or whatever we needed to get.”

Ebalo led V.C. with 21 points, eight rebounds and two assists, but went 15 of 16 from the free throw line. Vande Vegte added seven points and six rebounds while Bushong chipped in with six points, three boards and two steals. As a team, V.C. shot nine of 39 from the field.

Following the game, the V.C. boys ended the regular season with an 80-65 win over Whittier Christian, marking the eighth time this season the team has scored at least 80 points. The Defenders led by 24 points at the half against the last place team in the Olympic League, only to see the Heralds cut their deficit to 12 points by the end of the third quarter.

“They’re high schoolers, they’re not professionals,” said V.C. first-year head coach Josh Zumkehr. “So, they look at the scoreboard and…they let that determine their effort. It’s disappointing, but we responded.”

Still, that didn’t stop V.C.’s run and gun offense from doing what it has been doing most of the season-shoot well and score. V.C. was 10 of 16 from the field in the first quarter and scored 23 points while collecting 10 rebounds and seven assists. In fact, all the scoring came from the five starters, highlighted by junior Denzel Williams (20 points, four assists, three rebounds in the first half) and senior Malvin Payero (12 points, seven assists in the first half).

“They did a good job of taking the ball out of Malvin’s hand, and it slowed us down and we didn’t know how to respond,” Zumkehr said. “Then we saw it a few more times and got lay-ups out of it.”

By halftime, the Defenders had missed 10 shots in 31 attempts and that percentage dropped even more in the third quarter when Whittier Christian outscored the hosts by 12 points. But V.C. put the game away by scoring the first five points of the fourth quarter. Williams finished the game with a season-high 25 points on none of 11 shooting. He also had seven rebounds, six assists and two steals.

“He started this year a little bit slow because he was coming off an injury,” Zumkehr said. “He didn’t really play much in the fall, and then he really found his rhythm. This is offensively his best game of the year. He was really good tonight.”

Payero added 19 points, nine assists and eight rebounds while sophomore Micah Sybesma chipped in with a career-high 14 points and seven boards. The Defenders, ranked fourth in Division 3A poll, end the regular season at 19-8 overall but won two of eight league games. They scored at least 62 points in seven league games, but also yielded over 70 points in five league games.

“It doesn’t feel like it when you’re in the middle of the games in the Olympic League,” Zumkehr said. “But the great thing is it’s going to prepare us for the playoffs. We’ve seen nothing but high-level players night in and night out. Credit to Whittier Christian too; they’re a really good team. I feel we’re prepared.”