Santa Clarita Christian School traveled to Rancho Cucamonga, a trek that totaled 140 miles round trip, to compete in the second round of the CIF Division II State Championships on Thursday.
The No. 9-seeded Cardinals were unable to knock off the top-seeded Cougars, falling 66-61.
“High-level game against a great team on the road,” said SCCS head coach James Mosley. “I feel like breaks could have gone either way and I told my guys they fought hard.
“I’m proud of their commitment to this school. We knew it was going to be tough, but I’m proud of the effort that we put forth today.”
SCCS’s Kevin Stone hit a 3 to open up the game’s scoring. Josh O’Garro blocked Cougars point guard Shaden Knight’s drive into the lane, which led to a fastbreak layup and after another Stone 3, SCCS jumped out to an 8-0 lead two minutes into the game.
Kaleb Lowery came off the bench to score six of his eight points on the night in the first quarter due to his quick-leaping ability and knack for offensive rebounds.
Lowery finished the game with eight points, eight rebounds, one assist and two steals.
Holding a 16-5 lead, SCCS (11-23 overall) looked to have things under control after O’Garro executed a two-handed dunk in the opening seconds of the second quarter.
Setting the tone early, Justin Collins was able to effectively shut down the Cougars “go-to player” in Knight, forcing the rest of the team to make some shots.
“He has done that all year long,” Mosley said about Collins’ defensive tenacity. “He has guarded every high-level guard and is an elite defender at this level. He took on a different role midway through the season because we gave him a lot of the ball-handling responsibilities and defensive matchups and he just did a great job.”
Rancho Cucamonga (25-9) answered, going on a 10-4 run to cut the Cardinals lead to 20-15 with 4:36 remaining in the half.
But SCCS’s Stone kept the Cougars at bay with his shooting abilities, knocking down two of his four 3’s in the game in the second quarter.
Heading into the break, SCCS held a slim 32-30 lead.
Needing an answer, SCCS turned to senior Leroy Thompson. He answered the call, scoring his first points of the game on a layup to push the lead to four points.
“I knew that my high school career was on the line and I had to do whatever I could do to help my team win,” Thompson said.
Thompson scored all nine of his points in the second half.
With Collins shadowing Rancho Cucamonga’s point guard Knight, other Cougars had to step up and provide the scoring.
Doing just that, the Cougars took their first lead of the game at 38-37 after a corner 3-pointer by CJ Fisher.
SCCS’s Caden Starr and O’Garro countered with their length, getting offensive rebounds for putbacks and getting to the free throw line to finish to keep the Cardinals level with the Cougars at 50-50 through three quarters of play.
Scoring just 11 points in the final frame, their lowest-scoring quarter of the game, Thompson poured in five points within the first two minutes hitting a 3 and knocking down a couple of free throws.
The Cougars retook the lead after a 3-pointer by Knight and a turnover that led to a layup to get within two points of the Cardinals with under four to go.
With under two minutes to go in the game and the game tied at 58-58, the Cougars’ CJ Stroud stepped into a 23-footer with ease to give the Cougars a 61-58 lead.
Collins answered with a 3 with 30 seconds on the clock to tie the game, but that was all the points that the Cardinals scored as the Cougars were able to score the final five points to advance to the semifinals.
Rancho Cucamonga will play Valencia in the semifinals on Saturday at 6 p.m.
“We had a group of guys that truly loved Jesus Christ, served each other, the school and the Lord,” Thompson said. “It’s not about wins or losses, winning a state championship or losing in the second round of state playoffs, it’s about the culture.”