No player better exemplifies the fighting spirit of the Palos Verdes basketball team than point guard John Mika.
The 5-9 senior seemingly will go to any lengths to help his team win. That includes sacrificing his body, which Mika did Friday night while sparking the Sea Kings to a 65-62 win over Morningside in the opening round of the CIF 3-A basketball playoffs.
"I took a little beating, blood and everything, but that's all right," he said. "We won the game."
Mika absorbed some punishment--he was cut on the chin and hit in the eye on two hard fouls in the closing minutes--but it was nothing compared to the pain he inflicted on the host Monarchs.
Taking command down the stretch, Mika scored Palos Verdes' last six points on perfect free-throw shooting and came up with two steals in the final 1:54 to help his team to its sixth straight win.
The Sea Kings (17-8) will put their streak on the line Tuesday night in a second-round game with Savanna of Anaheim (22-4), which advanced with a 75-53 win over Bolsa Grande. Palos Verdes is the host team but must play at a neutral site. Coach John Mihaljevich said the game will be played at Rolling Hills or South Torrance.
Mihaljevich, who barked instructions to his players throughout the closely contested game, was pleased with Sea Kings' ability to shut down Morningside guard Dwayne Lucas in the second half and come from behind after the Monarchs had opened a 41-36 lead early in the third quarter.
"I think this game certainly lived up to CIF (playoff) expectations," he said. "We hung tough down the stretch, especially Mika. He had scratches and bruises all over him, but he's a tough kid."
Palos Verdes came out drilling from the outside to open an 11-2 lead, but Morningside answered with some long-range shooting of its own. Lucas hit four three-point shots, three in the second quarter, to help the Monarchs recover and take a 35-34 half-time lead.
In the second half, the Sea Kings switched to a box-and-one on Lucas, who was shadowed by Mika. The strategy worked, as Lucas managed only one point in the second half.
Mika also frustrated Lucas on the offensive end, dribbling around him on several occasions and twice maintaining his dribble while on his knees. A little showmanship never hurts in the playoffs.
"When they went to a man-to-man (defense) in the fourth quarter, I knew I could get by him," said Mika, who had had trouble getting a shot against the 1-3-1 zone defense used by Morningside most of the game.
Against the man-to-man, Palos Verdes was able to spread the court and Mika was able to penetrate. His aggressiveness resulted in opportunities from the foul line, where he was eight for eight in the fourth quarter.
Mika saved his best moves for the final minute. With Palos Verdes clinging to a 63-62 lead, Mika stole the ball with 42 seconds left and helped run the clock down to 12 seconds before he was fouled by Lucas, who was sent to the bench with his fifth infraction.
Mika drained both ends of a one-and-one and then watched with his teammates as Morningside forward Kevin Lilley misfired from the three-point line as time expired. Twice earlier this season, Lilley had made three-point shots to send one game into overtime and win another.
"It was a tough loss to take," said Morningside co-Coach Ron Randle, whose team finished at 16-9. "Both teams played a hard, disciplined game."
Randle blamed free-throw shooting for the Monarchs' downfall. While the Sea Kings made 11 of 12 foul shots in the fourth quarter, Morningside hit only 1 of 5 attempts.
"That was the determining factor in the game," he said.
Another factor was the play of Palos Verdes' three senior leaders. Mika and forwards Mike Matteoni and Jeff Whitley combined to score all but 10 of the Sea Kings' points. Matteoni led the way with 22, followed by Whitley with 18 and Mika with 15.
All three started on last season's team that reached the semifinals of the 3-A playoffs.
The way things have gone for Palos Verdes lately, getting that far again is not out of the question.
Said Mika: "People will have to reckon with us now."
Palos Verdes' victory was one of the few bright spots for the South Bay in the opening round of the CIF-Southern Section and L. A. City playoffs. The only other winners in the area, which was a collective 3-9 on Friday night, were Rolling Hills and Westchester.
Fourth-seeded Rolling Hills, the Bay League champion, opened the CIF 3-A playoffs with a convincing 80-47 win over Montclair. The Titans (19-6) will meet Western (17-7) in the second round on Tuesday night at Katella High in Anaheim.
Western advanced with a 67-58 upset over Pioneer League champion Leuzinger (18-6), one of three Pioneer teams to make an early exit from the playoffs. The others were Morningside and third-place El Segundo (12-10), which lost a 55-53 heartbreaker to Alhambra.