CORONA DEL MAR — Natalie Perales has acted as a one-player roadblock to the Corona del Mar High girls' basketball team the last two years.
The Segerstrom High senior point guard has met the Sea Kings in the semifinals of the CdM Tip-Off Classic twice. Each time, she has put on a big performance to dump the hosts from championship contention.
CdM Coach Mark Decker asked Segerstrom Coach Jeff Watts after Thursday night's game if Perales was a senior. Decker smiled, simply saying, "Good," after he was told that this is Perales' last year of high school.
"I'm trying to get that fifth year [of eligibility]," Watts said, smiling back.
Perales had 17 points and 13 steals as the Jaguars posted a 57-35 win at CdM to advance to the championship game, where they'll play either Westminster or Tesoro at 7:30 p.m. Saturday night at Northwood High.
Westminster and Tesoro play in the other semifinal Friday night. CdM will play the loser in the third-place game at 5:30 p.m. Saturday at Northwood.
Perales was the ringleader of the press defense for the Jaguars (3-0) against CdM. The Sea Kings (2-1) committed 33 turnovers in the contest.
Twelve of the turnovers came in the third quarter, when Segerstrom outscored CdM, 28-4. Perales, who had 16 points and 10 steals when Segerstrom beat CdM in the semifinals of last year's tournament, shared team scoring honors Thursday with junior Kayla Stephens, who also scored 17.
"She's got a great stutter-step," Watts said of Perales. "She'll back it up and just explode. The thing is, she's a right-handed shooter, but she goes left like there's no tomorrow. She's actually probably our second-best rebounder. She's got some hops, even though she's 5-3. She's a great kid, doesn't say much but just has gotten better and better."
Segerstrom opened up a 17-5 lead after the first quarter, but CdM got back into it. Midway through the second quarter, junior guard Keaton Gaughan drew a charge on one end then nailed a three-pointer on the other. The Sea Kings were also successful feeding freshman Krista Anderson in the post.
Anderson poured in 12 of her 17 points in the second quarter, helping the Sea Kings pull within 21-18 at halftime. But the press defense killed CdM in the third quarter.
"We got in a rhythm on our press," Watts said. "We're fairly quick ... I thought our pressure really hurt Corona del Mar there in streaks."
CdM freshman forward Natalia Bruening, who had averaged 13.5 points in CdM's first two games, was scoreless Thursday on just two shot attempts. She did play effective defense on Stephens at times and blocked four shots.
Anderson made eight of nine shots. The rest of the CdM players combined to make just eight of 32 attempts.
"We didn't get the ball inside enough, and that was our advantage," Decker said. "Every time Krista got it, she scored. We didn't handle the pressure very well, obviously, with our turnovers. We just didn't give ourselves a good enough chance to go with our strength, and that's getting the ball inside first. Natalia was helping break the press a lot, so she was away from the basket, but we were so impatient that we didn't give it time to get multiple post touches."
Senior guard Kassie Alvarado added 13 points and a trio of three-pointers for Segerstrom, the defending tournament champion which could play its Golden West League rival Westminster in the championship game. Last year, the teams both went 9-1 in league to share the title.
"I don't really want to play them at this point, but you've got to do what you got to do," Watts said.
Decker knows that what the Sea Kings have to do is handle the press better. They were more successful in that aspect in Wednesday's quarterfinal win over Mission Viejo.
"We need the experience," Decker said. "I want to play good teams. We're going to get pressed, and we need to do a better job with it. This is good experience for us ... it'll be a good film session for us [Friday]."