Friendly Face-Off

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By MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS
Rafu Sports Editor

PASADENA.–With her team down and their season slipping away at the start of the fourth quarter at Polytechnic Thursday, El Segundo guard Lauren Sato walked onto the court with her discouraged teammates and gave them something entirely unexpected: an ear-to-ear smile.

El Segundo’s Lauren Sato tries to apply pressure to former North-South teammate and current Poly star Michelle Miller, during their CIF Div. 4AA first-round playoff game on Thursday in Pasadena. (Photos by MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS/Rafu Shimpo)

“I always try to stay focused. In my head, I always have that little bit of hope that we can catch up,” Sato explained. “By the fourth, I realized we should take the opportunity to just have fun.”

For Sato, the senior who has played brilliantly at El Segundo, the fun is over. The Eagles were somewhat lucky to receive a berth into the postseason and their early exit means they won’t make it to State and that their season is finished.

Moreover, it came to an end largely at the hands of Sato’s good friend and former North-South teammate Michelle Miller, who dominated – again – in Polytechnic’s 73-33 romp over the Eagles in the first round of the CIF Southern Section Div. 4AA playoffs.

Miller, the senior who is seemingly rewriting the record books with every successive game, led all scorers with 33 points, equalling El Segundo’s team total.

Size and better ball movement made the difference from the outset for Poly. To El Segundo, it must have felt as though they were looking upwards to whichever towering Panther was defending.

Early double-teaming of Miller might have been effective if not for frosh Kiki Yang taking advantage of open looks and hitting three of her four 3-pointers in the first quarter.

Poly’s trapping defense forced El Segundo into all sorts of forced errors: bad passes, double-dribbles and dribbling out of bounds.

Sato had several brilliant no-look passes inside, but her teammates more often than not were unable to finish through the taller Poly defenders.
Miller really began to heat up in the third, and did not miss any of her shots in the fourth. It seems that anything that left her hand was destined to go through the hoop.

“I told them that she can do everything–post up, pull-up jump shots, three-point shots, but I don’t know if they were ready for it,” Sato said of

Miller, with whom she played club ball for four years. “She probably intimidated them a little bit. We were hoping that maybe we could surprise them and outrun them a little bit, but it didn’t work out that way.”

Sato added, “I definitely like being on her side, rather than going against her.”

Sato netted 17 points for the Eagles, who received an at-large berth in the playoffs.

It was a tough first-round draw for El Segundo, who finished only 3-7 and in fourth place in the Pioneer League. They were saddled with the daunting challenge of trying to stop Miller and the Panthers, who only dropped four games all season–none since December–and were a perfect 12-0 in the Prep League.

Poly head coach Kim Weber said one of their goals was to contain Sato, but with their rampant scoring, the issue was moot.

“Lauren played really well,” Miller said. “She had some really nice passes and frankly, we’re lucky her teammates weren’t finishing as well as they’d like.”

Sato finished the night with a team-high 17 points for El Segundo, while Sydney Hongo added four.

Weber acknowledged the size mismatch in Thursday’s win, but the next round has them traveling to Bellarmine-Jefferson, who were undefeated in the Santa Cruz League and boast three players who are 5-foot-10 and two at six feet.

“They’re big and fast, and they can all shoot, so Saturday will be a battle for us,” Weber said.

Miller, who has also played with several of the Bell-Jeff players, wore a humble face of confidence. “When we play like we know we can, we’re always going to believe we have a shot to win,” she said.

Sato will now take a well-deserved rest to enjoy the waning days of her senior year. She will workout over the summer and will soon decide where she’ll be in the fall–at Occidental, Claremont-McKenna or possibly playing for coach Carol Jue at Chapman.

Unlike many players whose prep careers come crashing to an end in the playoffs, there were no tears nor long faces from Sato, just appreciation for the time and the coaching she has been a beneficiary of thus far.

“I try to see the positive in everything, and this has been good preparation for college,” she said.

•   •   •

Meanwhile, across the city limits in South Pasadena, the host Tigers found a greater challenge than expected in their Div. 3AA opener against Barstow.

Trailing for most of the first half, Barstow clawed back and took the lead in the third quarter, forcing South Pas into a maddening string over turnovers. The Tigers regrouped and by the time Elise Takahama hit a three-pointer with under four and a half minutes to play, the tide had turned and they went on to a 47-42 win.

Kelsey Nakamura led South Pas with 13 points and Takahama added eight.

The Tigers move on today to face Alemany, who play host after receiving a bye in the first round.

On the boys’ side, South Pas guard Kai Matsukuma scored eight as the Tigers had little trouble with visiting San Dimas, taking a 59-37 decision in their Div. 3A playoff opener.

The guys were set to take on host Santa Margarita in the second round on Friday.

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