The girls basketball team from defending state Division I champion Morningside High School may be the most talented group in California and because four starters return, big things are expected from the Monarchs.
Morningside is living up to those expectations in the 22nd L.A. Games.
Saturday morning at El Camino, Morningside proved it is still the team to beat by defeating Division III champion Brea-Olinda, 42-35, in the quarterfinals of the 64-team girls tournament.
The Monarchs advance to the semifinal round against Lynwood today at 9 a.m. The championship will be played later this afternoon.
"Everyone on this team is bound to improve, and I don't see anyone out there stopping us if we play up to our capabilities," said Morningside's All-American center Lisa Leslie, who was recently named to the Junior National team after tryouts in Colorado Springs, Colo. "I think we'll be even better once the season starts and we start getting back into our rhythm."
However, if there is one kink in the Morningside armor, it is the absence of point guard JoJo Witherspoon, who graduated and moved on to play at the University of Kansas. Witherspoon was a catalyst on offense and Morningside's best defensive player. Monarchs Coach Frank Scott has asked sophomore Sherell Young and junior Princess Murray to step into Witherspoon's spot, but it is a considerable request.
"Right now it (Witherspoon's graduation) is affecting us a lot," Scott said. "She was a great defensive player, she was probably the quickest guard in California and she pushed the ball upcourt for us."
Against Brea-Olinda, Murray scored six points, but Young was held scoreless. The Monarchs also had trouble bringing the ball upcourt, committing 21 turnovers, including 14 in the second half when Brea-Olinda cut Morningside's 14-point lead to 3 with 2 minutes left in the game.
Morningside has 6-foot-1 forward Janet Davis, who started every game last year as a freshman. Davis scored 10 points Saturday, yanked down nine rebounds and blocked four shots.
But when it counts, Morningside still has the 6-foot-5 Leslie, who is probably California's best basketball player. She led all scorers with 17 points, 19 rebounds and six blocked shots.
After scoring 12 points in the first half, Leslie was silent for the first 18 minutes of the second frame when Brea-Olinda, trailing 31-17, cut the Morningside lead to 35-32 with 2:10 remaining.
In the next 20 seconds, Leslie took over. She drove the lane for a layup, was fouled and converted the free throw for a three-point play.
On the other end of the court, Leslie blocked Tammy Blackburn's shot, grabbed the loose ball and fired a pass to Akiba Flanagan, whose shot rolled off the rim. Leslie got the rebound, was fouled and made both shots to give the Monarchs a more comfortable 40-32 advantage.
"The first thing we have to do is get our confidence level back up," Leslie said. "And then we have to keep getting more intense on defense. If we keep playing hard, giving 110%, we'll be all right.
"I like the fact that we're playing well together as a team and the defense is hanging in there."
Leslie goes to Colorado Springs in two weeks and will join her Junior National teammates on a basketball tour of Europe.
The L.A. Games kick off the summer basketball season, and Morningside will play in three tournaments and in a league in Culver City.
But they'll play most of their games without Leslie, Davis, who will attend AAU camp in Virginia, and Flanagan, who along with Witherspoon will participate in team handball at the National Sports Festival in Oklahoma City next month.
"That's what the summer is all about," Scott said. "You get a chance to see what you need to work on and see how your youngsters can perform."
In other sports action:
Two of three South Bay teams advanced in the early basketball games Saturday only to be eliminated later in the afternoon.
Carson dumped Marina of Huntington Beach, 52-37, Saturday morning at Locke High, but was beaten by Lynwood, 56-54, in the later game. In its first game of the day Lynwood beat Westchester, 61-57, in overtime.
Also at Locke, Rolling Hills, which beat Camarillo, 62-48, Saturday morning, lost to Dorsey, 63-51, in the afternoon round.
Two South Bay teams will face each other this morning in the passing football semifinals at El Camino College.
North Torrance squeaked by Bellflower, 20-19, and earned the right to face Westchester, which beat L.A. Baptist, 7-6.
Muir beat West Torrance, 21-7.
West Torrance advanced to today's softball championship game with a 5-1 victory over Hart of Newhall. The Warriors face Thousand Oaks, which beat Rolling Hills, 7-6, in a game that was decided by two tiebreakers.