The Saddleback men's basketball team is headed to the Final Four for the second straight year after beating East Los Angeles College, 68-58, in the regional finals on Saturday night at the Saddleback Gymnasium. Maurice Jones (Mojo) came off the bench to score 13 points as the Gauchos held off a furious rally by the Huskies.
East Los Angeles scored the first two points of the game to take a 2-0 lead with 19:18 remaining in the opening half. It was the last time the Huskies would have the lead as Saddleback scored the next 16 points, opening up a huge lead in the first seven minutes. East LA would go six minutes without scoring a point before Richard Bivens finally broke the scoring drought and stopped the Gaucho onslaught.
Like good teams do, however, East LA was not going to go down without a fight. The Huskies got back within 10 at the half despite Saddleback holding a big advantage in rebounding, 28-15. Seven different Gauchos scored in the opening half led by Devonte Klines, who finished the half with seven points. Breaon Brady had trouble with a number of easy shots around the basket, but was dominant on the glass with eight rebounds in the opening 20 minutes.
East LA continued to chip away at the lead with a number of acrobatic shots to start the second half. Iziahiah Sweeny was red hot, making four of his first five shots from the field as the Saddleback lead dwindled to three at 36-33 with 16:22 remaining.
Lyle Hexom stretched the Saddleback lead to five at 40-35 with a thunderous dunk off a rebound with 15:09 remaining. The Huskies again bounced back with a jumper by Bivens to cut the lead to 40-37.
Jones then gave the Gauchos life with a three-pointer from the corner, again stretching the lead to 43-37 with 14:27 remaining. Again the Huskies responded as Miles Ford drained two consecutive shots as the lead shrunk to 43-41 with 13:21 left in the game.
East Los Angeles again closed to within two at 48-46 when Sweeny made another jumper with 8:13 remaining, causing Saddleback fans to again put a pause on their travel plans up north. Sweeny would finish with a game-high 21 points on 9-of-15 shooting, but it was the last time he would score for a five minute stretch as the Gauchos defense picked up the pressure.
Saddleback would extend the lead with four straight baskets. Klines started the run with a three-pointer on the following possession. Jones followed with a basket off a rebound, getting fouled and completing a three-point play at the free throw line. Jalen Hall then drove to the hole for an easy layup and the lead was quickly back to 56-46 with 6:15 remaining. Following another East LA turnover, Jones then made another layup with 5:38 remaining for a 58-46 advantage.
As quickly as East Los Angeles had gotten themselves back into the game with hot shooting, it was now slipping away from them and the dogs were running out of steam. The only hope for the Huskies was to put Saddleback at the line and hope for misses. The game plan worked as the Gauchos obliged with four straight misses from the charity stripe, allowing Sweeny and Bivens to go back to work. Bivens made three straight free throws of his own and then drained a three-pointer with 2:04 on the clock, cutting the lead back to three at 58-55. Brady pushed the lead back to 60-55 with a jump hook from the lane, but Ford again looked like a Mercedes on a jumper, cutting the lead back to three on the following possession with 1:16 remaining.
Following a timeout, it was then time for the Orange Empire Conference MVP to take control. T.J. Shorts stopped the bleeding with a jumper off a pass from Josh Mishler as the Gauchos upped the lead to 62-57 with 44 seconds remaining. Shorts then was sent to the free throw line with 31 seconds remaining after a Husky miss, making both free throws as the game was slipping away from East LA. Hexom then got into the action, draining two more free throws with 20 seconds remaining as Saddleback could smell blood in the water. Shorts sealed the deal with 10 seconds remaining, making two more from the charity stripe as the lead again hit double digits in the final seconds.
The Saddleback crowd erupted with the final buzzer as the Gauchos had won their 24th straight game and earned a spot in the Final Four at Los Positas College next weekend. Jones finished with a team-high 13 points, with three others finishing in double-figures. Brady and Shorts both finished with 12 points while Brady had a game-high 12 rebounds.
Saddleback (30-1) will play Fresno City College (28-6) in the state semifinals next Saturday after the Rams defeated Contra Costa College, 100-89, on Saturday night up north. Game time is set for 7:00 PM in Livermore.
The other semifinal will feature City College fo San Francisco and Chaffey College at 5:00 PM.