The free-throw line is a bad place for the Santa Monica High basketball team, so bad that if the Vikings were to lose the Southern Section boys' 4-A title, it would be there, Coach Cliff Hunter said.
Indeed, bricks (12 missed free throws) nearly ruined the Vikings. But missed free throws do not necessarily mean missed points, which Santa Monica forward Keith Neal proved Saturday night.
Neal, a senior, grabbed two rebounds off missed Santa Monica free throws, scored a game-high 20 points, and dominated the last four minutes of play in Santa Monica's 62-60 win over Westlake at the Sports Arena, which gave the Vikings the 4-A title.
Neal's biggest rebound came with 1:45 left and Santa Monica leading, 58-54. After Santa Monica guard Syrus Yarbrough missed the front end of a one-on-one, Neal jumped past two defenders, grabbed the rebound and layed it in for a 60-54 lead.
"I said if we didn't win, it would be because of free-throw shooting," Hunter said.
"As bad as they were shooting 'em early, I had a feeling they were gonna knock 'em down when it counts."
Which they did, sort of. Santa Monica shot 40% from the line for the game, 6 of 17 in the second half.
Neither team was expected to be here, and in the first half, neither looked like they necessarily belonged. Each team shot only 42% from the field.
Santa Monica guard Danny Price, who had 18 points in the game, led a fast outside-shooting attack and had 10 points in the first half. Yarbrough sunk a 35-footer at the buzzer, and Santa Monica led, 30-24.
Westlake point guard Rick Welch, a driver with usually quick inside moves, was overmatched by the speedy Yarbrough, who was relieved of his defensive assignment by William Benjamin occasionally. When he wasn't defending Welch, Benjamin was trying to shut down Westlake's high-scoring Paul Keenan, who finished with 16 points.
Westlake countered Santa Monica's quickness with the strong inside play of forward Jim Henderson. Henderson scored 15 points, most of them off passes from Welch, and had 10 rebounds to pick up for Keenan, who played in foul trouble throughout.
With 7:32 left and Westlake trailing, 42-39, Henderson hit a five-foot turning jump hot to make it 41-39. On the next possession, Dave Heckmann was fouled and made both free throws to give Westlake its first lead of the game, 42-39.
It was then that Neal took over. He grabbed four rebounds in the last 6:30 and scored eight points--including 4-of-4 shooting from the line.
Santa Monica (18-9) advances to the Southern Regionals of the State tournament next week. Westlake, runner-up to Simi Valley in the Marmonte league, finishes 21-8.