Sometimes a team hits bottom before picking itself up. For the Palos Verdes High basketball team, that moment occurred Jan. 22 after a 45-38 loss in double overtime to Rolling Hills.
The Sea Kings, preseason favorites to win the Bay League title, had fallen to fourth place and were close to elimination from CIF Southern Section playoff contention.
"We all felt like a wounded tiger in the jungle that was cornered," said Coach John Mihaljevich. "We wanted to play each game as hard as we could."
Palos Verdes rebounded from a 2-3 start to win its last five league games, finishing in second place and earning the right to meet Morningside on Friday night in the first round of the CIF 3-A playoffs. The 7:30 game will be played at Morningside.
Mihaljevich said the Sea Kings' turnaround was accomplished after a bit of soul-searching.
"After that heartbreaking loss to Rolling Hills, we had a team meeting," he said. "All the players contributed. We talked about the little things we weren't doing, like hitting key shots and rebounding. When you added them up, they were causing us not to play up to our potential.
"To our credit, I think we were the best team in the second round."
Mihaljevich hopes the Sea Kings' second-half resurgence continues in the playoffs, but he knows it won't be easy getting past the opener.
Morningside (16-8), the Pioneer League runner-up, holds advantages in depth, height and quickness over Palos Verdes (16-8).
"I'm aware of the fact that they have four players averaging double figures in points," Mihaljevich said. "There's no doubt we'll have to deal with their quickness. My big concern is that they will shoot well."
If Morningside comes out pressing, as Co-Coach Ron Randle has indicated the Monarchs will, Palos Verdes figures to need a big effort from point guard John Mika, the main ball-handler and one of the team's three senior leaders.
Mika is averaging 14.2 points a game and leads the Sea Kings in free-throw percentage, three-point shooting and assists. Forward Mike Matteoni averages 15.6 points and 7 rebounds, while 6-4 center Jeff Whitley averages 13.2 points and 8 rebounds.
"Basically, those three provided the leadership and the play to get us back into the (league) race," Mihaljevich said. "They elevated their games."
No surprise there, considering that Mika, Matteoni and Whitley were starters on last year's team that reached the semifinals. The Sea Kings also have gotten help from unexpected sources: off guard Matt Ralph and two reserves, center Dan Sheen and guard Greg Jones.
Morningside, making its sixth straight playoff appearance, was the 3-A champion in 1985, a quarterfinalist in '86 and reached the second round last season. Randle feels the Monarchs are capable of another impressive showing, despite the loss of forward Eddie Scott to a broken wrist midway through league play.
"It's a challenge, but it's a challenge we think we're ready for," he said. "I think it's important to show the rest of the (playoff) teams that we're going to be tough."
Seniors Marvin Franklin and Dwayne Lucas head a balanced attack for the Monarchs. Franklin, a 6-5 forward, averages 16 points and 12 rebounds, while Lucas, a guard with a 40-inch vertical leap, averages 15 points and 8 assists. Another senior, 6-4, 205-pound forward Kevin Lilley, moved into the starting lineup following Scott's injury and is averaging 14 points.
Two sophomores have also contributed in recent games: 6-7 forward Jeff Crowe and guard Don Sanders.
Randle says the game will come down to whose style is more effective: Palos Verdes' patient ball-control attack or Morningside's fast break and pressure defense.
"We'll try to run," he said. "We can't allow ourselves to get caught up in a half-court game."
Here's a rundown of other CIF playoff openers involving South Bay teams:
St. Bernard (18-7) at Huntington Beach Marina (18-6), 7:30 tonight--This 5-A Division match-up could come down to a battle of young giants. St. Bernard boasts 6-10 junior center Ed Stokes, while Marina has perhaps the finest freshman in Orange County, 6-9 Cherokee Parks. Forwards Steve Guild, a 6-6 senior who signed early with Pepperdine, and 6-7 Dan Floyd round out Marina's impressive front line. Guild is averaging 19.6 points. St. Bernard will try to neutralize Marina's height with quickness, depth and an effective full-court press. Forwards Eric Nelson and Juno Armstrong, along with point guard Keith Brown, are keys for St. Bernard.