When the Santa Monica High School boys basketball team first started Ocean League play this season, it seemed that the Vikings were on the right path to a third-straight league title.
But coach James Hecht now says it is more of an uphill battle.
After opening league play with four consecutive victories and a big non-league win over Villa Park High School, the Vikings (14-10, 4-4) have dropped four straight league games.
The latest losses were a 60-51 defeat at home to Inglewood High (15-8, 5-2) Wednesday, February 2nd, and a 57-54 defeat at home to Beverly Hills High Friday, February 4th.
The Vikings’ early cruise through the league brought the team to the top of the league standings, but the latest losses have bumped Santa Monica to the third-place slot.
Two teams that Santa Monica has defeated, Inglewood and Culver City, now stand in first place and second place respectively.
“For whatever reason, we’re a fragile team right now emotionally,” Hecht said. “When the tide breaks, we have a tendency to break down.
“We’re in a downward spiral right now.”
The Vikings, who narrowly beat the Inglewood Sentinels 49-46 in the first meeting of the two teams Friday, January 14th, looked like they were ready to hand the Sentinels a second defeat early in the game.
Santa Monica grabbed its biggest lead of the game at 16-8 to end the first quarter, and held a slim 25-24 advantage at halftime after Inglewood began to charge back.
Junior guard Terrance Boozer, who scored a team-high 20 points, helped keep the Vikings narrowly ahead after making a reverse lay-up in the last seconds of the third quarter for a 38-37 lead.
It was the last advantage Santa Monica would have, as the Sentinels found a power boost and went on a 23-13 run in the fourth quarter to take the victory.
Inglewood took control by out-rebounding and outplaying the Vikings on both sides of the court.
“We just got manhandled on the boards,” Hecht said. “They just pursued the ball.”
While Inglewood found offensive success, Santa Monica struggled on offense with missed shots and picked up its first field goal of the final quarter with two minutes to play on a shot by Boozer.
“We beat these guys before and we thought we had it,” said Boozer, who scored five points in the fourth quarter. “We just didn’t pick it up and we just fell apart.”
The fourth-quarter play of the Vikings was a different performance than they showed in the first part of the game.
Both teams came out determined to fight for a shot at the league title, but it was Santa Monica that had the upper hand at first, taking an eight-point first-quarter lead.
The Sentinels began to pull closer in the second quarter by capitalizing on turnovers and missed shots by the Vikings.
Inglewood narrowed its deficit with nine points by guard Jamel Ward, who led all scoring with 24 points, but Santa Monica kept its slim lead with strong defense. Ken Baker, who finished with ten points, pulled Inglewood within one point before halftime with a last-second three-pointer.
“They went on a little bit of a run and our answer was quick shots,” Hecht said.
The Vikings still struggled offensively after halftime and forced shots, but the defense picked up the slack to keep Santa Monica ahead.
Inglewood got its first lead with 6:55 left in the third quarter, but Santa Monica regained the lead with the help of Boozer, who made two of his three treys in the third quarter.
Junior forward Will Freedman finished with seven points and senior forward Jason Deutchman added six points in the loss for the Vikings.
Santa Monica’s hopes for a third-straight league title now depend on the outcome of the remaining games in the Ocean League.
“At one point we controlled our own destiny, but we need a little help from our neighbor now,” Hecht said.