Tam a CdM point of emphasis

Kelly Tam fell in love with basketball at a young age, but you can't play basketball without a hoop.

Tam said she begged her parents, Leo and Marge, for one. The response wasn't quite what Kelly wanted to hear.

"They were like, 'Oh, where are we going to put it? We don't have any room,'" Kelly Tam recalled.

So Kelly took matters into her own hands. She made good use of the basketball court in the One Ford Road community of Newport Beach, working long hours to improve her game.

There, too, she encountered a bit of resistance.

"The neighbors would get really mad, because I would be there all the time," she said. "You know how when you bounce [the ball around], it will echo? That's why they would get mad. I'd be there early in the morning, late at night."

Often at the court, it was just Kelly against that hoop. She found that place of tranquillity.

It helped prepare her for a scene which was nothing like that just last week, in front of hundreds of screaming fans in the Corona del Mar High gym. Tam, now a sophomore at CdM, had the ball in her hands at the end of a CIF Southern Section Division 3AA quarterfinal playoff game against San Juan Hills.

The No. 6-seeded Sea Kings had come nearly all the way back from an 18-point second-half deficit against No. 3 San Juan Hills. It was up to Tam, the point guard, to finish that off.

Boy, did she deliver.

She took the pass from Maria King and nailed a three-pointer from the corner with 40 seconds left, tying the score. Then, after San Juan Hills made a free throw, it was up to Tam to make another play. She did so, even after San Juan Hills nearly stole the ball. Tam ripped it away, drove right and weaved between three Stallions before banking in the game-winning layup with five seconds left. Krista Anderson blocked a Stallions shot on the other end at the buzzer, and the Sea Kings had a thrilling 38-37 victory.

The five points were the only ones Tam, the Daily Pilot Athlete of the Week, needed to score in the game. She helped CdM make the CIF semifinals for the first time since the 1982-83 team that captured the program's lone section title. And, though the Sea Kings fell at No. 2-seeded Lake Elsinore Lakeside, 57-37, in the semifinals, their season may not be over thanks to Tam.

Coach Mark Decker said that CdM (21-9) is optimistic that it will advance to the CIF State Southern California Regional Division III playoffs, which begin next week. The Sea Kings will find out Sunday night if they earned a berth; first-round games are Wednesday.

Much has been made of the Sea Kings' size, which is hard not to notice with 6-foot-3 Natalia Bruening and 6-2 Anderson, also both sophomores, roaming the paint and leading the team in scoring. Tam is quite familiar with Bruening and Anderson, as they have been playing together since the fifth grade.

But Tam, who is averaging about six points and a team-best four assists, also has been a leader in this breakthrough season that saw the Sea Kings win six Pacific Coast League games, the most in Decker's eight-year tenure.

"Her role has definitely changed this year, to play a lot of point guard," Decker said. "Her improvement from last year to this year has been amazing. Her confidence has been really, really strong. Kelly lives and breathes basketball, so her skill level has always been really high. She's finally confident in her abilities ... she's able to shake off mistakes."

Tam, who has played club basketball the last few years, most recently with Cal Swish, had to grow up fast. CdM's point guard heading into last year, Kate Thompson, has had a long road back from a nagging back injury that first started bothering her just before league started last year.

Thompson, now a senior at CdM, said she woke up one morning and couldn't walk. She called it "the worst pain I've ever been in." She was diagnosed with fluid buildup in her sacroiliac (SI) joint, and had to go to physical therapy for months. Thompson has played some point guard this season for the Sea Kings also, but it's come off the bench. She had two key three-point plays late in the San Juan Hills game.

"[Tam] has done an incredible job," Thompson said. "In my opinion, she's one of the most driven people on our team. She's grown a lot."

Tam said that stepping in last year as a freshman was tough at times. It was her first experience of playing point guard; usually she has been more of a scorer as a "two" (shooting) guard.

"It is a big responsibility," Tam said. "You're running the show ... [but] it was a good opportunity. If [Thompson] is in, she usually takes care of the ball and I run the two."

The Tam family is used to stepping up in key situations. Kelly's older brother, Justin, was a leader for the CdM football team before graduating in 2010. Justin, who now attends the University of San Diego, was a first-team All-Pacific Coast League cornerback for the Sea Kings in his senior year.

Kelly may be still a sophomore, but she has big plans of playing basketball in college. Unlike many high school students, she finds more joy in the college game than in the NBA. It's clear that Tam appreciates the benefits of hard work.

"[I don't like] the flopping [in pro basketball], and they get into fights," she said. "You know, you play at such a high level, there's a lot of room for a lot of competition, or cheating, or fighting. Sometimes it's not fun to watch your role model do that, you know? It's kind of hard to watch that. [The college game] is more clean. Everyone's more fundamentally sound."

That's maturity coming from a 16-year-old, maturity that will continue to benefit the Sea Kings on the court in the future.

For now, Tam just hopes the Sea Kings have a chance to keep playing in the state tournament.

From One Ford Road to one of the top threats on a CIF contender, her journey continues.

Kelly Tam

Born: Feb. 4, 1998

Hometown: Newport Beach

Height: 5-foot-6

Sport: Basketball

Year: Sophomore

Coach: Mark Decker

Favorite food: Sandwiches

Favorite movie: "Like Mike"

Favorite athletic moment: Scoring the game-winning layup with five seconds left to lift No. 6 Corona del Mar to a 38-37 upset of No. 3 San Juan Hills in a CIF Southern Section Division 3AA quarterfinal playoff game Feb. 26.

Week in review: Tam scored the final five points of the game to help CdM upset San Juan Hills. She then scored six points, both on three-pointers, in a loss to Lake Elsinore Lakeside in the Division 3AA semifinals.

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