By Bonta Hill
With tenacious defense and timely shooting, Lowell High School took the drama out of the Academic Athletic Association girls basketball championship early.
Lowell defeated Washington 50-40 at Kezar Pavilion on Friday and Lowell’s Aki Kuwada won his fifth championship in his sixth year as the head coach of the Cardinals.
“It feels very good, especially for this team because they’re so young and prone to mistakes, but they just stepped up and played today. Unbelievable,” said an emotional Kuwada.
The scary part for opponents in the AAA is that Lowell’s top three scorers were all sophomores.
Angie Ng had a team-high 13 points for Lowell (28-4), followed by Lorna Ruufuli’s 12, and Katarina Lum came off the bench to score 11.
After the game, Kuwada was already gushing about next season, as he will only lose four seniors to graduation.
“The hardest part is making this team believe defense is the way to do it and this [win] will prove it to them,” Kuwada said. “Next year we’re going to be back. We’re going to be real tough [to beat].”
The Cardinals used a 12-1 run to put them up 18-5 early in the second quarter, and Washington (25-9) wouldn’t cut the deficit to under seven points for the rest of the game.
Washington shot 41 percent from the floor, but committed 19 turnovers and could never mount any momentum against a stout Cardinals defense.
“Turnovers, indecision, and bad decision’s [hurt us]. We just didn’t come out and play.” said Washington head coach Vince Wong.
In the championship atmosphere, it was Lowell who was the better shooting team on this night. After shooting 26 percent from the field against Wallenberg in the semifinals on Tuesday, the Cardinals finished the night shooting 43 percent against Washington.
When it seemed as if the Eagles were starting to wake up, Lowell would respond with a big shot.
Washington center Phacharee Arunleung, who had a game-high 18 points, scored a basket that brought Washington within 22-15 with 1:30 remaining in the first half, but on the ensuing possession, Lum sank a three pointer that extended Lowell’s lead back to 25-15.
The Eagles cut the deficit to seven again, at 43-36 with 3:50 left, but the Cardinals delivered the knockout punch, scoring the next five points to wrap up the championship and avenge their only regular season loss.
“This past week we’ve been locking down defensively, working super hard,” Lum said. “We had the mentality to dominate from the beginning of the game.”
Wong was visibly disappointed afterward, as his team fell short on winning Washington’s first championship since 2001, but he still was proud of the season his squad had.
“We had a great season, but you have to play from beginning to end,” Wong said. “It doesn’t come down to one game. We had a great season, [but] when you don’t come to play, you don’t deserve to win.”
On a night when Lowell’s underclassman controlled the action, the Cardinals are set up nicely to return to the league championship, something they were already talking about following the win.
“We weren’t as great of a shooting team as them, but we compensated for it with hustle,” Ng said. “We’re going to be back next year with experience. The first time we played [Washington], we just weren’t ready for the environment. This time we were ready.”
Both teams will enter the CIF Division I state tournament, which begins next week. The matchups will be released on Sunday.
Angie Ng – 13
Lorna Tuufuli – 12
Katarina Lum – 11
Tiffani Pak – 8
Erin Ng – 3
Phacharee Arunleung – 18
Raelyn Cheung-Sutton – 8
Megan Dea – 7
Stephanie Yee – 3
Two players tied with 2 points