Kawakami leads Valencia to win over Saugus

Valencia's Richard Kawakami (1) drives past Saugus defender Stephen Tampus (32) at Valencia High. Dan Watson/The Signal

The two boys basketball teams atop the Foothill League met on Friday night in a battle between Valencia and Saugus at Valencia High School.

The Vikings built an eight-point, first-quarter lead and never let up, defeating the Centurions 68-55 to tighten their stranglehold on first place in league.

Senior point guard Richard Kawakami produced from the get-go, finishing the first frame with eight points and four rebounds. He ended the night with a double-double, recording 28 points, 11 rebounds, two assists and a steal.

“I just want to do what I need to do to get the ‘W’ at the end of the day,” Kawakami said. “Whether that’s scoring, rebounding, playing defense, I’m going to do it all for the team.”

Junior shooting guard Jake Hlywiak was second on the team in scoring finishing with 16 points, three assists, two steals and a block.

Valencia’s Jake Hlywiak (2) scores against Saugus defender Alex Phan (4) at Valencia High on Friday. Dan Watson/The Signal

Known for his 3-point shooting ability, Hlywiak faced tight coverage on the perimeter, so he used his speed to get around Saugus defenders and get to the basket or operate in the midrange area.

“Today they were face guarding, so I was just trying to attack more and get out in transition and get easy layups,” Hlywiak said. “Since they were overplaying, the drive was the best option. If they are going to take away the 3, I’m not just a one-trick pony, I’m going to beat you to the basket.”

Trailing by seven at the half, the Centurions battled back in the third quarter behind a strong performance from junior Adrian McIntyre.

McIntyre scored 9 of the Cents’ 13 points in the third quarter and finished the contest with 24 points, 11 rebounds, three assists and three steals.

“He’s a great player, team player,” Saugus assistant coach Darren Seow said of McIntyre. “He puts the team on his shoulders to try and will us to a win. He’s a very special player.”

The Centurions continued to battle in the fourth quarter, bringing the deficit to six points with a little over four minutes left in the game.

However, Kawakami took the game over in the final minutes by driving the lane and drawing contact. He made 8-of-9 free throws, with all but one of them coming in the second half.

“They call him the ‘swiss army knife’ because he can beat you in so many different ways. I think he’s one of the most versatile players I’ve ever coached,” Valencia head coach Bill Bedgood said about Kawakami. “He definitely was the difference-maker tonight. At the end of the game, we kept putting the ball in his hands and setting ball screens for him. He has the size of a big but the skill and quickness of a guard so it’s a tough matchup for them.”

“Last year he was more of a big, but he was able to make the transition to point guard and I think it has totally switched up our team. We didn’t have a true point guard coming into the year and he was thrown right into it and now he’s making plays,” Hlywiak added. “That fourth quarter, he’s getting layup after layup, finding guys, making his free throws. It just came down to that and we were able to come out with the win.”

With Jayden Trower and Josh Assiff in foul trouble, the Vikings had to rely on their bench early.

Senior Ben Hanvey and juniors Grant Kim and Kevin Konrad led the second unit and gave the Vikings valuable minutes spelling the starters.

Hanvey had four points, one rebound and a steal while Kim added two points, four rebounds, two steals and a block.

Konrad finished with three points, two rebounds and a steal.

“This is a big team win. They are always ready to play,” Kawakami said about the bench. “Whenever we call their numbers, they are going to produce and that’s what they did tonight.”

Freshman Nathan Perez finished with 12 points, three rebounds, two assists, a steal and a block for Saugus while junior big man Camron Nale added 11 points, two rebounds and two blocks.

Near the end of the game, things got a little chippy, with both teams competing hard and battling to the final whistle.

Bedgood said he has nothing but respect for Saugus and the program that they are building there, a program he used to lead.

“I knew going into this season that they had a great team. I’m very familiar having coached those guys,” Bedgood said. “I have a lot of respect for what they are doing. They beat Campbell Hall, we lost to Campbell Hall so we knew playing them the first time it was going to be a good game.”

“We were proud of the effort. We wish that things could have been a little better but at the end of the day hats off to Valencia,” Seow said. “Their guys played their hearts out and same with our guys. It was a great game and tough battle.”

With the win, Valencia is now 18-4 overall and 6-0 in league with an inside track to capture the Foothill League crown. The Vikings face Poly of Riverside on Saturday before returning to league action against Hart on Tuesday.

Saugus moves to 14-7 overall and 4-2 in league with a matchup against West Ranch on the docket on Tuesday.

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