CULVER CITY -- One by one, Garces' girls basketball players emerged from their locker room at Del Goodyear Gymnasium; some had blank stares, other tears and some faint smiles.
All were contemplating how narrow their season-ending loss Saturday was: One more rebound, perhaps, or one fewer turnover. One more free throw. One point.
As it turned out, host Culver City beat Garces 53-52 in the CIF Southern California Division II quarterfinals, holding on in the final seconds when the Rams couldn't get a full-court heave off after Culver City missed a free throw.
"It didn't feel like we lost, just like we ran out of time," Garces coach Tod Denison said. "I told the girls, 'Look, hold your heads high. You're champions in my book.' We knew it would be a tough game, and it easily could have gone the other way.'"
The loss snapped the Rams' 29-game winning streak and was the 18th straight victory for Culver City.
The No. 4-seeded Centaurs (31-4) will move on to the SoCal semis Tuesday to face top seed West Hills-Chaminade, but early on, it looked like No. 5 Garces (31-4) had the upper hand. The Rams scored 11 of the first 12 points of the game and led 16-5 after a quarter.
Garces sophomore C.J. West, who finished with 16 points and 25 rebounds, controlled the paint early, and Victoria Cruz -- who had 13 points -- and Rhiana Dougan (10) scored from the outside.
"We never expected to beat them by 30 or anything, because they're a really good team, but we stepped up our D," West said. "But it seems like we start strong and then always let teams back in the game."
That happened in the second quarter because of two major factors: 1) West and Dougan each got in foul trouble and had to sit the majority of the quarter, and, 2) Culver City senior Michelle Curry, who led all scorers with 20 points, got hot from the field.
"She's tremendous; she's done it all year for us," Culver City coach Julian Anderson said. "She played with poise, and we've been riding her back since she walked in the door."
Curry scored 14 points in the first half and drew two fouls on West while driving to the basket. In all, the Centaurs shot 23 free throws in the first half, including four late ones that cut Garces' halftime lead to 28-24.
"They called it so tight," Denison said. "I don't know if it was unfair to one side, but there were times where I felt our girls couldn't play defense."
The teams combined for 72 free throws (Garces was 14 of 27, Culver City 22 of 45). Garces has nine players on its roster; two fouled out and three others had four fouls at the end of the game.
"There were some crazy calls, and I think we let it get into our heads when even our guards were in foul trouble," West said. "We were trying to play hard, but we didn't want more fouls."
West sat for nearly an entire quarter before returning late in the second. Getting her in foul trouble was important, Anderson said, but not easily done.
"We prayed about it," he said with a smile. "We wanted to attack the basket and hope she went for it, but I think their coach did a good job getting her in and out of there."
Culver City continued its rally in the second half, though Garces maintained the lead until Lindsey Tanita's 3-pointer put the Centaurs ahead 44-41 with 5:12 to play.
Tanita, who finished with 12 points, and Curry scored all the points in a 11-2 Culver City run that put the Centaurs up 48-41.
"They missed a few shots they were making in the first half that gave us a small edge," Anderson said. "It was exciting. When we talk about playing in March, this is what we're talking about."
Culver City led 53-46 with less than two minutes left when Garces nearly had a dramatic comeback of its own. Cruz buried a 3-pointer to cut the lead to four, and Culver City missed four straight free throws. Then, Andrea Flores was fouled while shooting a 3 for Garces with 2.1 seconds left.
Flores made the first two free throws. Garces had no timeouts left, so Denison tried to instruct her from the bench to miss the final shot on purpose, giving Garces -- namely West -- a chance for a rebound and putback that would tie the game.
But Flores made the shot to cut the lead to 53-52 instead. West fouled out on the ensuing inbounds pass, and though the Centaurs missed two more free throws, Lisa Darquea couldn't get off what would have been a 90-foot prayer as time expired.
"We never give up," West said. "All four games we've lost, the team we played was really good and we didn't play our best. We have so much drive, but sometimes the game's not going toward us."