Lowell High School girls’ basketball coach Aki Kuwada talks a lot about complacency and for good reason.
In all eight of his seasons with the Cardinals, they have dominated the Academic Athletic Association and advanced to the California Interscholastic Federation Division I state playoffs, including this year, but they have yet to get past the second round of the Northern California bracket.
Like many public-school coaches, Kuwada feels that AAA players are highly motivated to win the San Francsico Section title, but seem to lose interest at the next level.
“I take responsibility for it,” Kuwada said of the Cardinals’ struggles in the NorCal tournament. “I could not get them to understand how important the postseason was. Winning our league championship is wonderful, but it’s nowhere near as satisfying as winning in the postseason.”
Getting out of the first round has been hard enough, as Lowell had gone just 2-5 in NorCal openers under Kuwada prior to this season, but the sixth-seeded Cardinals accomplished that first step with a 63-50 win over visiting Oakland Tech on Wednesday.
Up next for Lowell (25-5) is a road meeting with Heritage of Brentwood (25-5), the NorCal bracket’s No. 3 seed, on Saturday night.
The Patriots won the Bay Valley Athletic League with an undefeated 10-0 record, lost to Monte Vista of Danville (the top seed in the NorCal bracket) in the North Coast Section Division I championship game and feature two frontcourt players above 6 feet tall that the Cardinals simply can’t match up with in a man-to-man defense.
The Cardinals — who are big for the AAA with three key players around 5-foot-10 but are at a height disadvantage against many of the best teams in the state — aren’t inexperienced playing against larger opponents. Oakland Tech featured three 6-footers, but Lowell used an aggressive 1-1-3 zone defense to negate that advantage and even outrebounded the Bulldogs.
“[Before this season], we never ran it before, but we’ve committed to it entirely,” Kuwada said of the zone. “They just love it and they’re so aggressive with it. We put so much pressure on the ball, they have to put the ball on the floor to get a good look.”
While Lowell forwards Lorna Tu’ufuli and Taylor Sui carried most of the scoring load for much of the regular season, in the playoffs, the Lowell guards have stood out.
Senior point guard Katarina Lum, the AAA Player of the Year in 2012, scored 21 points in the Cardinals’ win over Galileo in the AAA title game, then added 14 points against Oakland Tech. Lum’s backcourt-mate, junior shooting guard Kelly Wong, led the way with a team-high 20 points against Oakland Tech.
“We concentrate on our post players and everything we run goes through the post, but once we get in the posteason that’s more difficult to do,” Kuwada said. “We’re still doing that now and it really opens up our outside game.”