El Camino Real knew what was coming this time. The ceaseless pressure defense applied by Palisades High of Pacific would be all over the court for four quarters, but this time it wouldn’t be such a shock to ECR’s collective system like last year in the playoffs. This time the Conquistadors would be prepared.
This time, however, was just like the last time.
Once again El Camino Real wilted in the face of Palisades’ relentlessness and will, getting steamrolled 65-44 in the City Section girls’ basketball Open Division title game at Cal State Dominguez Hills on Saturday, March 5.
It was the second straight Open Division title for Palisades (24-8), which got 23 points from standout senior guard Kayla Merrill Gillett. Yet even Gillett’s performance took a backseat to the Dolphins’ defense.
The game started positively for ECR (24-9), as the Conquistadors opened a 12-7 lead with 2:21 left in the first quarter. But then Palisades’ defense snatched the game away.
The Conquistadors went scoreless for the next 11-plus minutes — and that includes the entire second quarter. By the time Kianna Hamilton-Fisher (who led ECR with nine points) finally ended the drought at 7:13 of the third quarter, the Dolphins had scored 25 consecutive points and opened a 20-point lead, which they pretty much maintained the rest of the way.
“It’s hard to figure out [the pressure] when we’re playing so unselfish,” Palisades Coach Torino Johnson said. “We play team ball; it’s really that simple. Sometimes it’s complicated because it’s so simple. But we treat the game as an elegant game.”
ECR Co-Coach Renard Beavers Jr., who’s been handling all duties while Co-Coach Cara Blumfield is on maternity leave, could only shake his head in admiration afterward. Palisades had done the same thing to the Conquistadors last year in the first round of playoffs, winning 64-40. The team was expecting a much closer contest this time.
“We had put 6-7 girls against our five starters in practice. We worked on getting the ball out of the corners and up the court,” Beavers said. “But when it came to the real game, it just didn’t happen. We just couldn’t do it.
“We knew this was going to be hard. Our weakness has been breaking presses. And we worked on it all week. Maybe after you play in a real game and do it, at this caliber, then you may finally get over that hump. But sometimes you have to lose that kind of game before it really sinks in.”
Palisades still has its own obstacles to overcome in the upcoming state playoffs; the Dolphins are still not on even ground with top Southern Section teams like Chaminade and Mater Dei of Santa Ana. But City Basketball is their domain; in winning back-to-back Open Division titles, Palisades has gone 37-1 the last two years against City competition.
“It’s been the discipline — the way we practice, and the emotional intelligence this group has,” Johnson said. “They’re well conditioned because they are expected to press the whole game. And these young ladies have a different desire. The challenge is for them to commit and be invested in practice. Not just committed, but invested in what you’re doing. It’s 95 percent mental.”
One thing was certain. Despite the constant running up and down the floor, pressing El Camino Real every step, the Dolphins looked as fresh and hungry in the fourth quarter as they did the first quarter. The Conquistadors, on the other hand, look exhausted and drained.
“They’ve shown the focus you need, the aggression you need, and the commitment you need,” Beavers said of Palisades. “They pressed us the whole game, and no one looked tired. They’re showing you the next level. They’re making everyone else better in the City. They’re making us stretch for something. Because those girls really worked hard. It was a full, complete team effort from them.”