The Saddleback men's basketball team advanced to the state championship game on Saturday with a 66-61 overtime win over Fresno City College in Livermore, California. The Gauchos were down by as many as 12 points in the second half before surging past the Rams.
Saddleback entered the game 0-12 lifetime against Fresno City College, a staggering number for a program with as much success as the Gauchos. For about 30 minutes it looked as if it would be 0-13.
Saddleback had arguably its worst half of the season in the opening 20 minutes, turning the ball over 16 times and heading to the locker room down 28-19. The Gauchos took just 18 shots in the opening half and managed to keep within an arms distance with suffocating defense.
Fresno City came into the game with a state-best 91.9 points-per-game. The Rams had scored over 100 points in six of their last seven games. Saturday was something they had never seen all season as the Saddleback defense was relentless.
The second half started the way the first one ended, with Saddleback turning the ball over four straight times. The lead grew to 32-21 with 16:38 remaining and would later grow to 12 when B.J. Shelton made a free throw to make the score 35-23 with 14:37 remaining.
From that point forward, Fresno City looked tired. The Rams stopped pressing and Saddleback started to find its rhythm. Lyle Hexom made a layup to cut the lead to 10 before Charles Trotter got to the free throw line and sliced it to 35-27. Jalen Hall later made a layup and Maurice Jones followed with another to cut the lead to 37-31 with 12:11 remaining. In total, Fresno scored just two points over a 3:09 span as Saddleback drew within five.
Fresno City finally bounced back when Evan Stillahn drained a three-pointer to put the Rams back ahead by eight, but it was becoming obvious that FCC was running on fumes. Saddleback again held them scoreless for another 4:55 as the Gauchos pulled within 42-37 on a three-pointer by Jones.
Fresno City answered with a three from Nick Hilton with 6:08 remaining, putting the Rams up 45-37. The lead would continue to slip away from the Rams, however, as Hexom started a rally with a layup and later Jones made back-to-back layups as the FCC lead slid to 45-44.
With the lead waffling between 1-3, T.J. Shorts buried a couple of free throws to get the Gauchos within 49-48 with 1:48 left on the clock. Hexom would finally tie the score for Saddleback by making one-of-two free throws with 43 seconds remaining, forcing Fresno City to call a timeout.
The Rams came out and missed a three-pointer, giving Saddleback a chance to steal the game with 10 seconds remaining. Following a timeout, the Gauchos went to Hall, who missed a runner in the lane with one second remaining, sending the game to overtime.
Much like the 2015 semifinal when Saddleback stunned Canada College, Fresno City looked disheartened in overtime. The Gauchos rattled off six straight points while Fresno couldn't buy a basket. A three-point play from Aaron Cameron finally stopped the bleeding for the Rams, but only momentarily. Saddleback kept working the ball inside and getting to the free throw line. Devonte Klines made a free throw and Breaon Brady two more as Saddleback held a 58-54 lead with 3:04 remaining.
Cameron again answered the bell for Fresno with a jumper to cut the Saddleback lead to 58-56, but Klines countered with a three-pointer of his own from the wing and the lead was back to five with 2:37 remaining. Klines would put what appeared to be the final dagger in the Rams with another three-pointer with 1:03 remaining, giving the Gauchos a 64-58 lead. It was a great stretch for Klines, who started the game just 1-of-6 from the field.
Fresno City, however, wasn't going to go down without a fight. The Rams got another three-pointer from Mike Crawley with 41 seconds left on the clock and the lead was again down to three. Saddleback used the clock, running it down to under 15 seconds before Shorts made a move for the hole. He missed a jumper, giving Fresno a chance to tie the game.
Quickly down court, Stillahn missed a long-range jumper with eight seconds on the clock, giving Saddleback the ball out of bounds. Amazingly, the Gauchos turned the ball over on the inbound pass and gave Fresno City yet another chance...their 28th turnover of the game. The Rams came up short on a jumper from Crawley, sending Charles Trotter to the line with one second remaining. Trotter closed the door, draining both free throws as the bench erupted.
Hexom finished with a game-high 17 points on 7-of-11 shooting. Klines and Brady both finished with 10 points apiece as Saddleback held a 43-33 advantage on the glass.
Saddleback advanced to its second straight championship game and fourth in the past eight years. The Gauchos will face City College of San Francisco, who comes in with an identical 31-1 record. The opening tip is scheduled for 3:30 PM at Las Positas College.