Taft 48, Washington Prep 46

Ah, it’s back, thank goodness. I hadn’t realized how I’d missed it – the gut-churning excitement of a good high school basketball game. It’s been since last March that I’ve felt the way I did today watching Washington Prep and Taft go at it. That’s a lot of moons ago in basketball time.

It was a good-old fashioned slugfest between two top-rated teams that looked more like a February playoff game than a season-opening debut. In a contest full of bad passes, missed free throws and beautiful plays, visiting Taft hung on for dear life in the second half to pull one out over Washington, 48-46.

The moment of the game that exemplified the grit both teams brought came at the very end of the third quarter. Prep’s Kejuana Gardner and a Taft player collided, throwing Gardner off-balance, and she looked like she was going to lose control of the ball. As the Taft player grabbed her, Gardner spun around and landed on the ground, but she was still dribbling the ball. She kept dribbling it as she stood up, and then broke free from her defender, running towards the basket.

The shot Gardner put up was too late, as the buzzer was already sounding when the ball left her hands. But it didn’t seem to matter to the awestruck crowd; it sure didn’t matter to me. I caught eyes with the man sitting to the right of me with his daughter, and I said “wow!” shaking my head. His eyes were big too and he laughed.

The game began with a quick Taft foul. I guess that should have been our first indication how the thing would be played. That, and the fact that both teams began with a blistering full-court press defense. Taft’s shots weren’t falling and Prep’s rebounds weren’t happening. Then the first steal-mania began: both sides taking turns stealing the ball from one another, whether it was off a bad pass or just grabbing a ball out of another girl’s hands.

Washington kept throwing the ball away on bad passes, and their defense and boxing out were lacking. Taft made two shots in a row and built a small lead, 14-10, towards the end of the first quarter. But Gardner stepped up to make two big buckets right at the end of the period, which took Taft’s lead down 17-16.

In the second quarter, Prep’s Reshanda Gray jumped in with Gardner and made some big plays. She began tearing down the rebounds, and got fouled for two shots. Then Gardner did the same thing. But bad Washington passes continued to result in turnovers, and Taft scored twice in a row. Prep stepped up their defense, and the score seemed like it was 22-17 Taft for the longest time.

Finally, Gardner made good with a fast break and laid it up and in. Taft answered, and the two teams went back and forth with scoring for the last 3:20. Gardner hoisted a 3 just before the buzzer, ending the half 26-25 Taft.

While their teams were warming up for the second half, the referees took aside a team captain from each side and talked with them for a moment. I presume it was to tell them to settle down and stop playing each other so rough. Like that would really happen.

In the second half, just like the first, players continued to dive for balls 3-4 at once; they tried to wrench the ball out of each other’s hands 2-3 people at a time; and they continued to push each other away or down to the ground. Typical game in girl’s basketball.

Prep stepped up its rebounding game in the third quarter and began grabbing them – largely due to Gray. After a series of alternating turnovers, Gardner pulled off a big play underneath the basket. It was 31-30 Taft at the 3:47 mark.

It was especially in the third quarter that the game seemed out of control at times. It was a run and gun game, as neither team would stop long enough to set up a play or run an offense. The athleticism of both squads put pressure on all the players. It seemed like everyone was afraid that if they slowed down long enough, someone would pluck the ball out of their hands or bean them on the head. (And these fears were legitimate, as those things happened regularly….)

The fourth quarter began with a Gray assist to Gardner, again cutting Taft’s lead to 35-34. Then it was Gardner’s assist that lead to the next bucket, and Washington was ahead by a point. Taft poured in a couple shots, then Gardner assisted Gray for a shot. After that, Gardner made a bucket. It was 43-40 Taft for a long time, but a big Prep shot, two Taft turnovers and another Gardner play under the basket tied them up at 44 with about two minutes to go.

Washington missed a wide-open layup, then fouled Taft’s Joy Hubbard. Hubbard missed both free throw shots, sending the loud crowd into hysterics on both sides. Taft did score on their next possession, and the score was 46-44 Taft with 45 seconds left.

No one could score, and with two girls fighting for the ball, possession was given to Taft with 26 seconds to go. Taft inbounded and was fouled, but again, the shooter missed both shots. Gardner then hit a 3, sending the Washington side of the gym into screaming fits. 47-46, Prep.

Taft inbounded and was fouled by Gardner. The Taft player made one free throw; Taft 48, Prep 46. Then Gardner was fouled, and Prep fans started dancing in the stands. But with 2.7 seconds on the clock, Gardner missed both shots. Washington tried an inbounds play after a timeout, but a Taft player got her hands on it and time ran out.

The free throws were the story of the game for both sides, because each team really needs to hit the charity stripe in practice. The turnover numbers were way too high, as well. Prep Coach Ricky Blackmon lamented both statistics after the game. But the bright spots outweighed those issues for me.

For one thing, Washington looked light years away from the way they played Monday at the Redondo Union tournament. Today they were hungry and determined. They look like a team who wants to take the league title badly, not to mention fighting for the city championship.

Taft also has some work to do, but they’ve got ferocious defense and some fine outside shooters. If Chatsworth is ahead of these two teams, as some have predicted, I’d like to see them.

Gardner, who had an off-year last year, was great Monday but was especially impressive today. Her tenacity was palpable; it oozed from her. And she was everywhere doing everything: rebounding, spinning, shooting and dishing assists. I really enjoy watching her play.

Gray, who is only a sophomore, has a lot of skill. She and Gardner should make a good tandem combo.

I talked with one of the Prep player’s mothers after the game. Felicia was waiting for her daughter, who had twisted an ankle in the first half. Felicia is apparently the team mom, and gave each player a hug as they emerged from the locker room, and told her to keep her head up. Then she carried her daughter off, piggy-back style.

I’m not worried about Washington Prep anymore this year. They’ll do fine.

I’m not worried about myself, either. I stayed really calm throughout the game, though I rolled to the side twice, late in the fourth quarter. It made the people next to me laugh, but I had to do it to keep myself from screaming.

I can take these types of games so much better than I used to.

After that I went to another game, but I’ll write about that one tomorrow. I’ve been up for almost 19 hours and need to call it a day.