The Santa Monica High School boys basketball team couldn’t stop the Hawthorne High School Cougars from capturing the Ocean League crown this season, but Vikings coach James Hecht was pleased that his team put up a challenge throughout the game Thursday, February 9th.

The Vikings (17-9, 6-4) came up short in handing visiting Hawthorne its first league defeat of the season after a 51-46 loss.

The Cougar victory gave Hawthorne (18-9, 10-0) its first league championship since 1983, and Santa Monica finished tied for second with Beverly Hills High.

The second-place finish in the league secured a home game in the first round of the Southern Section Division IAA playoffs for Santa Monica, which will face Lynwood High at 7:30 p.m. Friday, February 17th.

In the first meeting between the Vikings and Cougars this season, on January 25th, Hawthorne came out with the clear edge in a 76-62 win.

But in the rematch last Thursday, the Vikings were determined to try to shatter Hawthorne’s hopes of finishing with an undefeated league record.

“We did a better job of controlling the tempo of the game and taking care of the ball,” Hecht said of the rematch. “We played hard and played four quarters of basketball. T

“The game had all of the elements of a playoff-type atmosphere.”

While it was a low-scoring first half for both teams, Hawthorne held a narrow lead at the end of each of the first three quarters, including a 33-30 advantage heading into the final quarter.

After tying the score several times in the first three quarters, Santa Monica finally grabbed its first lead of the game with 6:46 remaining when junior Leo Arnold, Jr. made a free throw for a 36-35 score.

The Vikings then got their biggest lead of the game at 38-35 after a field goal by senior Akil Gainer, who finished with eight points, but Hawthorne responded and began to take control again.

“We had a couple of turnovers,” said Hecht, referring to when the Vikings had the lead. “They were able to convert some shots.”

The Cougars tied the score at 40-40 and grabbed their biggest lead at 45-40 with 2:20 remaining after a free throw by sophomore guard Casey Jones, who scored nine of his 13 points in the fourth quarter.

Santa Monica jumped back to within 49-46 after a late three-pointer by senior Will Freedman, but Hawthorne held on and ended the game with strong defense to keep its undefeated league season in tact.

Both teams struggled early with missed shots, but Hawthorne took a 9-7 lead at the end of the first quarter after a five-point effort by junior guard Brandon Richardson, who led the Cougars with 17 points.

Santa Monica senior Dominique Christopher was a defensive force below the basket by blocking and rebounding to help the Vikings stay evenly matched with Hawthorne throughout the second quarter.

But the tough Santa Monica defense meant many trips to the foul line for Hawthorne, which made eight free throws in the quarter.

Freedman, who led Santa Monica with 14 points, put the Vikings behind by one point with 20 seconds remaining in the half, but a last-second three point attempt by junior Bryan Louff missed, and Hawthorne held a 21-20 lead at halftime.

Although Santa Monica kept right behind Hawthorne throughout the third quarter, a number of offensive turnovers prevented the Vikings from taking the lead.

The Cougars maintained the edge with defensive pressure, and even though the Vikings picked up a short-lived lead in the final quarter, Hawthorne never seemed to lose control.

Senior Terrance Boozer and Arnold each finished with seven points for the Santa Monica Vikings.

“We wanted to play four quarters of basketball and I thought the effort was there,” Hecht said.

The Santa Monica coach said his team will look to carry its performance against Hawthorne into the Southern Section playoffs.

“We’re disappointed that we didn’t win league, because it was our goal, but we have to move on and focus on the next game,” he said.