Santa Monica High School girls basketball coach Marty Verdugo knew that his team’s first meeting with Culver City High School this season would have far more significance than just a regular Ocean League game.

The Culver City Centaurs had a 17-2 overall record and were undefeated in league play heading into the match-up with Santa Monica. Not to mention that Culver City had picked up a victory in its previous game over Inglewood High School — the same team that handed the Santa Monica Vikings their first league loss of the season (49-46).

So, Verdugo and the Vikings were well aware that their battle with the visiting Centaurs Friday, January 18th, would have more on the line than a league victory, it could have league championship implications.

“We had to prepare our girls like this was a championship game — that was our philosophy tonight,” Verdugo said of the expectations against Culver City.

That message definitely got through to the Vikings (15-4, 3-1), as they grabbed a 56-44 win over the Centaurs to hand Culver City its first league loss of the season.

Santa Monica junior Ellesse Brandis, who scored a game-high 17 points, said the Vikings were prepared to face an “aggressive” squad in Culver City, and they knew they had to outrun and out-rebound the Centaurs if they were going to take the victory.

After Santa Monica went into halftime with a 25-14 lead, Culver City turned some momentum its way in the third quarter, trimming the Viking lead to single digits. The Centaurs hit a pair of three-pointers and went on a 5-0 run late in the quarter to cut the deficit to three points.

But Santa Monica didn’t let the Centaurs get too comfortable and was able to maintain its lead throughout the quarter. Brandis scored six of her points to give Santa Monica a 39-34 lead heading into the final quarter.

“We said that we just have to keep pushing hard,” Brandis said of the Centaurs’ comeback effort after halftime.

Verdugo added, “They came out and hit us early but we battled back with big shots.”

Brandis kept up the hot shooting in the fourth quarter, scoring her team’s first seven points to protect the lead for the Vikings.

Culver City continued to struggle with shooting, particularly foul shots, as Santa Monica pulled away in the final minutes courtesy of Daisy Feder, who scored eight of her 14 points in the fourth quarter.

Sophomore Savannah Erskine, who led Culver City with 15 points in the game, attempted a late charge with a long three-pointer but it was not enough to stop the Vikings.

Santa Monica had taken the upper hand on offense at the beginning of the game, as the Vikings went on a 10-0 run in the first quarter to go ahead 12-5. Jennie Harding, who finished with 12 points, led Santa Monica in the quarter with eight points.

But the Centaurs fought back with strong defense late in the first quarter to climb to within 12-10. It was the closest Culver City would get, as the Vikings held the Centaurs scoreless until 1:39 before halftime and cruised to a 13-0 run, giving them a comfortable advantage for the second half of play.

Now that the defending league champion Vikings have put themselves back in position to challenge for the league throne this season, Verdugo noted that league opponents will be targeting them for the rest of the way.

“We’ve got to be ready for everyone’s best game,” Verdugo said.

Santa Monica will next face host Morningside High School in a league game Friday, January 25th.

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