Kunitake’s Best Option Pays Off for San Marino

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South Pasadena frosh Kristen Kafkaloff, right, scored four and was a defensive key in the Tigers’ clawing their way back into the game. (Photos by MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS/Rafu Shimpo)

By MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS
Rafu Sports Editor

SOUTH PASADENA.–Not exactly the way coach Kenny Fisher drew up the play.

Okay, not at all.

With time slipping away and her San Marino Titans down a point, senior guard Leigh Kunitake looked left, then right, for a teammate to receive a pass. The Tigers of South Pas, who had come back from a double-digit deficit to take the lead with 12.4 seconds to play, had all Titans covered.

That is, of course, except for the one with the ball.

San Marino senior Leigh Kunitake evades a defender to get off the last-second shot that won Wednesday’s league game at South Pasadena.

Kunitake faked one defender into going left when she moved right, split two more as she passed to teammate Emma Wong. Kunitake drove around to the baseline to take the feed from Wong, and eluding another Tiger, she lofted a soft shot to the basket. As the ball swirled once before dropping through, time expired and San Marino had escaped with a win.

“I got the ball and saw that there was only three seconds left,” Kunitake said afterwards. “I tried to pass, but no one was open, so I had to make a run and try to shoot.”

Kunitake had said before the game that her shooting hasn’t been great lately, and perhaps she had that thought just before her winning basket.

“I didn’t feel good about my shot from the outside, so I drove in,” she said.

San Marino improved to 10-7 overall, 3-0 in Rio Hondo League play. South Pas is 2-1 league, 14-4 overall.

That Kunitake should get the ball on the last possession was no surprise. She exploded out of the gate, sinking her first six shots, including four 3-pointers. She finished the night with six from beyond the arc and scored a team-high 27.

“She’s an awesome kid,” said Fisher. “This is just a glimpse of what she can do. She does it all the time.”

South Pas mounted an inspired comeback after trailing 28-17 at halftime. Poor shooting in the post, mostly by six-foot sophomore center Sophia Hathaway, was the Tigers’ undoing for most of the game. South Pas began to tighten up, however, in the third quarter and Hathaway, who led all scorers with 29 – 21 in the second half – regained her touch.

Fisher said a touch of complacency and relaxing on the defense of Hathaway is what opened a window back into the game for South Pas.

The Tigers got an inspired effort on defense from frosh guard Kristen Kafkaloff, who forced San Marino into at least three turnovers late in the fourth quarter. She finished with four points.

Kunitake flashed a few looks of exasperation as the Titans saw their lead dwindle in the fourth. She said  to see her team squander such an advantage was painful.

“We had a big lead, and we shouldn’t have given that up in the first place,” she said. “During one of our last timeouts, I told everyone that I didn’t want to lose this game.”

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