Panthers Move to the Top of Charts : Wins in New York Help Peninsula Earn Nation's Top Ranking

TIMES STAFF WRITER

New York, New York. If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere.

Now it's up to the Peninsula High girls' basketball team to prove it.

According to a USA Today spokesman, Peninsula will move into the No. 1 spot in the newspaper's national rankings, to be published today, after winning the championship of the Tournament of Champions in New York City.

That puts the Panthers in position to win the mythical national title, a feat that hasn't been accomplished by a South Bay high school in a major sport since the Inglewood boys' basketball team went 29-0 in the 1979-80 season.

An unbeaten season is a definite possibility for Peninsula, which is 11-0 after defeating host Christ the King of Queens, N.Y., 46-41, in the final of the Tournament of Champions on Monday. Peninsula entered the tournament ranked No. 2 by USA Today.

The Panthers' rise to the top comes as a result of No. 1-ranked Penn Hills of Pittsburgh losing to No. 5 Winchester of Franklin County, Tenn., 67-57, in the semifinals of the Lady Tigers Holiday Classic in Pickerington, Ohio, last weekend.

Peninsula made the most of the opportunity by beating three nationally recognized teams in the Tournament of Champions: East Brunswick, N.J., 74-43; No. 10-ranked Cardinal O'Hara of Springfield, Pa., 56-33, and No. 11 Christ the King.

The five-point margin over Christ the King was the closest game Peninsula has played this season. Christ the King pulled within three points in the final minute, but two free throws by guard Kristen Mulligan with 10.8 seconds left secured the victory.

Mulligan, who scored 12 points in the final, was selected the tournament's most valuable player, and teammates Jeffra Gausepohl and Monique Morehouse were named all-tournament. Gausepohl, a 6-foot-5 center, scored 12 points in the final, and Morehouse, a 6-3 forward, had seven points, 12 rebounds and three steals.

Peninsula's tenacious defensive play limited Christ the King center Nakia Hill, a 6-3 All-American bound for Georgia, to 15 points and frustrated the team's guards. Christ the King point guard Christine Fryer got only three shots and had trouble getting the ball inside to Hill.

"We were trying to put pressure on the ball the whole game," Peninsula Coach Wendell Yoshida said.

The Panthers' strategy of having Gausepohl and Morehouse collapse on Hill and applying constant pressure on Christ the King's guards paid off. Guards Mulligan, Raquel Alotis and Jill Kennedy were effective in disrupting Christ the King's offensive flow.

"(Gausepohl and Morehouse) weren't so tough," Hill said. "It was their guards that killed us."

Peninsula never trailed after taking a 6-4 lead midway through the first quarter and led, 32-21, after three quarters. But the Panthers almost let the game slip away down the stretch.

Christ the King's full-court press forced Peninsula into several untimely turnovers, and the Panthers further hurt themselves by missing free throws.

After Peninsula took a 44-37 lead with 58.9 seconds left, Christ the King forward Cristine Colberg made back-to-back baskets on drives to make it 44-41 with 24.6 seconds left. During that stretch, Mulligan missed three consecutive one-and-one free throws, but when fouled a fourth time she converted both ends of a one-and-one.

"The press rattled them," Christ the King Coach Vincent Cannizzaro said. "But they're a good ballclub. We got a few turnovers, but they broke it a few times too."

Said Christ the King assistant Bob Mackey: "We knew we were going to make a run, but the run we made was just too late. If the game was two minutes longer, it would have been a different outcome."

Yoshida agreed that his team had trouble handling the press.

"We haven't been pressed a whole lot, and it took us a little while to adjust," he said.

Peninsula will play its home opener Saturday night at 7:30 against Del Campo of Fair Oaks, which it defeated, 67-44, last month in the championship game of the Capital City Shootout in Sacramento. Del Campo features one of the state's prolific scorers in 5-10 junior Danielle Viglione, who averages close to 40 points a game. She had 24 in the last meeting with Peninsula.

Michael Dobie of New York Newsday contributed to this story.

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