The Saddleback men's basketball team captured the Orange Empire Conference title with a 69-65 win over Fullerton College on Friday night in the Saddleback Gymnasium. The Gauchos stung the Hornets with suffocating defense in the second half in finishing the season 19-9.
Saddleback pulled off one of the great feats in the history of the program on Friday night. After starting the season with no hopes of making the playoffs due to a post-season suspension to start the season, the Gauchos did the unthinkable in winning a share of the Orange Empire Conference title. Making things even more satisfying was beating the No. 2 ranked team in the state to do it, led by a fiery coach who once led the Gauchos to a state title in 2010. It was like watching Bobby Fischer versus Garry Kasparov in a great chess match, with the protege finally succombing to the mentor in the final minutes.
Saddleback and Fullerton ran neck and neck for most of the night, with neither team leading by more than four points for the entire first half. Fullerton carried a 31-29 lead into the locker room, thanks in large part to Lance Coleman and some hot shooting from the outside (4-of-8). Saddleback kept within an arm's length with the inside game of Shawn Stith and a slashing style of play from J.J. Overton. Stith led the Gauchos with nine points in the first half while Overton had eight points, three rebounds and three assists. In addition, Saddleback's defense held Fullerton to zero points off the bench in the entire half, something that would extend throughout the second half and become a problem for the Hornets down the stretch.
Saddleback started the second half cold, scoring just six points over the first seven minutes of the half in falling behind 42-35. From that point forward the Gauchos played some of their best basketball of the season, frustrating the Hornets with tenacious defense while consistently beating the Hornets down court in transition. Tyler O'Donnell came off the bench and quickly made a three-pointer, followed by a thunderous dunk from Overton off a steal in the defensive end. Things came to a fever pitch three minutes later when Overton scored another driving layup to tie the game at 46-46 with 9:32 remaining.
Saddleback continued to pressure on defense despite fouls mounting on the scoreboard. Coleman continued to get to the free throw line for the Hornets, making one after another. California's leading free throw shooter (92.2%) made 12-of-12 for the night, keeping Fullerton in the game as the Hornets went cold from the outside. Saddleback's defense held Fullerton to just 3-of-13 from the outside in the second half, with the Gauchos gobbling up all the rebounds.
Saddleback took the lead for good at the 5:52 mark when Captain Whitlock made a jumper for a 52-50 lead. It was the beginning of a seven-point run as the Gauchos took a 57-50 lead when Whitlock again buried a three-pointer with 4:27 remaining. Saddleback then iced the game by getting to the free throw line in the final minutes. Shawn Stith and Sean Birk combined to make six straight free throws as the lead remained at seven with one minute remaining. The Gauchos then iced the game with a steal and dunk from Kwan Clements, giving Saddleback a 67-58 lead with just 53 seconds remaining.
Overton finished with a team-high 18 points, fouling out of the game with 1:09 remaining on the clock. Stith was his consistent self, finishing with 17 points and a game-high 11 rebounds. The Gaucho bench would finish the game outscoring the Hornets, 14-0, as Fullerton could find no production outside the starting five for the entire game.
Saddleback finishes the season 19-9 overall and 10-2 in Orange Empire Conference play. It was the first OEC title for the Gauchos since the 2015-16 season and the seventh in the 11 years that Andy Ground has been the head coach. Co-champion Fullerton (25-3, 10-2) is likely to be the No. 1 seed or No. 2 seed for the upcoming playoffs, which start next week.