On its home floor and playing a lower-seeded squad, things appeared to be looking up for the Corona del Mar High girls' basketball team.
The No. 6-seeded Sea Kings went up big on No. 11 Los Angeles Garfield midway through the second quarter of Wednesday night's CIF State Southern California Regional Division III opener. CdM looked well on its way to extending its first state playoffs appearance in program history.
Then sophomore forward Natalia Bruening got her third foul. The lead nearly vanished by halftime.
In the end, it was the visiting fans chanting, "East L.A., East L.A.," as the final buzzer sounded.
The Bulldogs were out-sized. They made sure they weren't out-worked.
Garfield senior forward Irma Munoz and sophomore forward Monica Garcia each scored a game-high 21 points as the Sea Kings were upset, 53-48, ending their big season. Even more frustrating to the Sea Kings, it seemed like a very winnable game.
"I thought our defense was pretty bad," CdM Coach Mark Decker said. "Our rebounding was horrible. Non-existent. There's no excuse. They went after it, and we didn't ... I can't explain it. There's no reason why that should happen."
The Bulldogs (24-12), the L.A. City Section runners-up, boasted nobody taller than 5-foot-8 in their lineup. CdM's Bruening is 6-3, sophomore center Krista Anderson is 6-2 and junior forward Maria King is 5-10, but those heights didn't seem to matter for the Sea Kings (21-10).
On one possession late in the third quarter, Garfield got four straight offensive rebounds before Garcia was fouled. And with CdM down five in the closing seconds and desperately needing a rebound, Garcia provided her team with an offensive board, tipping the ball to Munoz and allowing the Bulldogs to run down the clock.
"I think we were playing a little bit smarter," Munoz said. "We were boxing out. We were just going after every loose ball. We knew from the beginning that they were going to be taller, they were going to have the height advantage over us. But I think our speed was what kept us in the game the whole time."
CdM took a 25-11 lead with 4:31 left in the second quarter, on a pair of free throws by King. Anderson was aggressive early, scoring eight of her 12 points by then and crashing the offensive glass.
The start was to the liking of three members of CdM's 1982-83 team, the only one to win a section title. Kim Valentine, Fran Wynn and Joan Loos watched the action from the stands.
But Bruening, who finished with 18 points, 13 rebounds and four blocked shots, picked up her third foul with 2:50 left in the half on a layup by Garcia. She walked to the bench, her hands on her hips and a disgusted look on her face.
Decker wore the look the rest of the half, as Garfield ended it on a 15-2 run to trim its deficit to just one point, 27-26, by halftime.
"Obviously we're a lot better when [Bruening's] on the floor," Decker said. "That makes a big difference, but our other girls should be able to rebound, should be able to do a better job. That's not a good enough excuse."
Garfield took its first lead since the opening minutes of the game on a three-pointer by Garcia early in the second half. And after CdM sophomore guard Kelly Tam made a pair of free throws with 4:25 left in the third quarter, the Sea Kings went cold. The Bulldogs ended the quarter with seven straight points, taking a 40-34 advantage into the fourth.
CdM was never quite able to catch up. Bruening picked up her fourth foul going for an offensive rebound with 6:25 left in the game. CdM cut the lead to two as Tam banked in a basket with 5:15 left, but senior guard Chanel Wosoughkia fouled out just moments later. Garcia hit the ensuing free throws before Munoz got a three-point play on a putback, giving the Bulldogs a 48-41 advantage.
The Sea Kings cut the lead to 50-48 on Bruening's post move with 1:32 left, and senior guard Keaton Gaughan got a steal on the other end, but Garfield's Sarah Leiva stole the ball right back. Bruening recorded a block, but again the Sea Kings couldn't get the ball into the front court. Leiva got a steal and layup to give Garfield a four-point edge with less than a minute to go.
Garcia drew a charge on the other end, and Munoz hit one of two free throws with 37 seconds left. Bruening was then called for her fifth foul on offense, swinging her arms near the three-point line a little bit too much for the referee's liking.
Garfield missed both free throws, but there was Garcia with the aforementioned offensive rebound, a fitting end to the game.