By Harry Parmenter
The Saugus Centurions Girls Varsity basketball team is on a roll. Running the table undefeated in Valley League play with an overall record of 24-4, not to mention ranked 31st in the entire state of California, they earned a bye in the first round of CIF Southern Section Division 2AA championships before earning a hard fought Saturday night special win over gutsy St. Anthony of Long Beach, 70-65.
The Centurions are a TEAM; tough, resilient, selfless, determined. They compete; they know how to win. How far they go remains to be seen but they look like they’re on a mission.
Coach Jason Conn leans heavily on his starting five of point guard Monique Febles, who can take it to the rack and make things happen; Lulu Salloom, who bangs the boards and does the dirty work every winner needs; Riley Phipps, whose nickname should be “Bottom of the Net” from what I saw Saturday night; Eden MacKenzie, shooting guard and the glue of the team; and Libbie McMahan, a gifted all around player and shooter who made several running, off balance runners from distance that, no joke, reminded me of Dirk Nowitzki. Key reserves Madison Seyforth and Maliah Sourgose, along with sophomores in waiting Victoria Phan and Ruth Kempler, complement the effort and contribute in one way or another.
Saturday night’s game was exciting from the opening tip, which went to Saugus’ MacKenzie, who wheeled and whipped a line drive on the money pass to the streaking Febles for an easy lay-up, setting the tone from the start and grabbing a lead they never relinquished. The Centurions kept it up most of the first half, moving the ball, hitting the open woman, throwing a number of beautiful bounce passes. At one point they were up 17 and a blowout loomed, but St. Anthony, to their credit, never quit and fought back, fueled by a pair deadeye shooters hitting four straight 3s in the middle of the second quarter, closing the gap to six at halftime, a little too close for comfort to the restless home crowd and a boost of encouragement to visiting family and supporters who made the trek from Queen Mary-land.
As the second half unfolded offensive rebounds, particularly after long misses, were a St. Anthony strength. Their second and third chances kept coming but after Saugus opened another comfortable Q3 lead their foe battled back, kept it close and suddenly, clock winding down, it was nervous time at the Forum.
The Centurions kept their composure and the lead, albeit one that slimmed as the fourth quarter progressed. A flagrant foul by Saugus on a St. Anthony breakaway sent a banged-up player limping off the court to a warm ovation. Her replacement, one of the deadeye Long Beach shooters, knocked down two free throws and they maintained possession as a result of the infraction.
Momentum had swung and the game hung in the balance but Saugus gathered a defensive rebound before misfiring at the other end and St. Anthony attacked again, down only a couple of buckets. A pass to trigger a wide open three pointer was picked off by a leaping Eden MacKenzie, a pivotal steal which, after both teams exchanged misses, led to a Saugus hoop that appeared to cement the win.
Still, St. Anthony bounced back, cutting the lead to four. Only a Saugus defensive stand as the clock ticked down to ten seconds clinched the game, as Coach Dunn turned to the crowd with arms waving, exhorting the predominantly home bleacher crowd to a roar of victory. The game over, both teams walked the handshake line, which included the referees and respective coaches, a class youth practice. Sportsmanship and goodwill matter, especially at Saugus High in this most tumultuous of years.
The crowd filed out as I left the gym and walked past the campus quad which had been the scene of abject horror just months before, faraway, so close. Life goes on for those left behind, scarred or unscarred.
The Centurions host Fairmont Prep from The O.C. Wednesday at press time in their pursuit of the next brick in their wall. Either way, they are winners in my book.