Playing in their last home game of Ocean League play this season, the Santa Monica High School Vikings boys basketball team knew what was at stake.
With a one-game lead over Inglewood High School, the Vikings were well aware that a victory over Beverly Hills High School was key in their path to securing the outright Ocean League title.
So, trailing Beverly Hills by seven points at the end of the third quarter, the Vikings fought back to force the game into overtime and then took control to capture a 68-57 league victory at home Friday, February 2nd.
In an evening when Santa Monica honored its senior players, the two top scorers for the Vikings were senior guards Leo Arnold Jr. and Bryan Louff, who finished with 21 and 18 points respectively.
The win over the Beverly Hills Normans (11-12, 3-5) kept Santa Monica (21-3, 7-1) alone in first place in the league standings with one week remaining in the regular season.
“At this point our focus and goal is to win the league, and to do that we have to take it one game at a time,” Santa Monica coach James Hecht said.
The Vikings made a strong statement for earning the league title by avenging their only league loss with a 58-53 victory at home over Inglewood January 31st. But Hecht said his players know that each remaining league game is crucial to achieving their goal of an outright league championship.
“At this stage of the game every game is important,” Hecht said of the Beverly Hills game. “We knew that if we want to win the league we had to win this game.”
Santa Monica held a 20-19 lead after a low-scoring first half, but then found itself down 37-30 by the end of the third quarter after Beverly Hills took advantage of a struggling shooting effort by the Vikings.
The Normans took the lead early in the quarter and picked up the pressure on defense to stretch their advantage to as much as nine points.
“Our shots were not falling, but I encouraged the guys to keep shooting,” said Hecht, referring to the third-quarter effort.
Heading into the final quarter, Hecht said the Vikings managed to “pick up the pace a bit” and found their rhythm on offense to climb back into the game.
Louff, who scored seven of his 18 points in the final quarter, kicked off the comeback with a three-point play to cut the deficit to 38-37.
Beverly Hills then jumped ahead 49-44 on a three-pointer by senior guard Cosmo Morabbi, who led the Normans with 20 points in the game, but the Vikings were not phased and continued to respond, as Arnold scored seven of his game-high 21 points.
After a free-throw by Arnold put the Vikings ahead 52-49 with 18 seconds remaining, Morabbi nailed a big three-point shot for Beverly Hills that sent the game to overtime, as Louff’s last-second shot rolled off the rim.
Morabbi’s shot was the last highlight Beverly Hills would see, as Santa Monica carried its fourth-quarter momentum into overtime and took control early.
The Vikings held the Normans to just five points after regulation and put the game away with solid free-throw shooting down the stretch, courtesy of junior guard Edward Willis, who made five foul shots.
“I just felt we had the momentum and the guys seemed a little more spirited,” Hecht said of the overtime performance.
But while the Vikings finished off in control, it had taken some time for their offense to get started in the game, as they fell behind 7-0 early in the first quarter before taking a 10-9 lead with 20 seconds remaining.
The Normans regained the lead in the second quarter and were ahead for most of the period, until Viking senior forward Ari Feldman, who added 13 points in the game, picked up a steal and scored to give his team a one-point lead at the half.
With one regular season game left on the schedule, Hecht said his team is concentrating solely on capturing a league championship before it sets its sights on the playoffs.
Santa Monica will end league play with a visiting game against Hawthorne High School Thursday, February 8th.