Leading JSerra by four points with under a minute left in regulation, the Santa Clarita Christian School boys hoops team seemed to have their CIF State Division I first-round playoff game wrapped up at The Master’s University on Tuesday.
A clutch 3-pointer by JSerra’s Ian Martinez coupled with a bad inbound pass by the Cardinals laid the foundation for a game-winning shot, but Josh O’Garro’s 3-point attempt missed its target and the Lions escaped with a 63-62 to win to advance to the second round.
“I knew it was going to come down to the end,” said SCCS head coach James Mosley. “I felt like we had it in hand when we were up four, but we made a couple bad decisions. They are a really physical team. We knew it was going to be a battle.
“A team that comes out of the same league that Mater Dei and St. John Bosco, you know it will be physically demanding. We competed hard and did some great things. In the end, we came up a little short, but I’m still proud of our guys, the run and the accomplishments.”
Senior Caden Starr finished with 18 points, three rebounds and five assists and Kaleb Lowery, another senior, had 16 points, two rebounds and two blocks.
Martinez finished with a game-high 33 points, scoring 23 points in the Lions’ second-half comeback.
“He’s just a complete player,” Mosley said. “He shoots it from deep off the dribble, there’s a few shots on tape that as a coach there’s not much you can do about those except hope he misses them. He stepped up for them and made every big shot for them and really dominated the game and gave them a chance to win in the second half. You see why he’s going to play in the Pac-12.”
Lowery set the tone early for SCCS (24-6 overall) working the boards on both ends of the floor and even showed his versatility with a nifty 3-pointer. Lowery finished the first half with nine points.
Ty Harper extended the Cardinals’ lead going 3-for-3 from 3-point range in the first half and finished the game with 14 points.
However, JSerra, who was without two of their bigs – Hugo Clarkin and Francesco Borra – battled back with points inside the paint by Ian Martinez and an alley-oop from Martinez to Alpha Chibambe to get within three, down 11-8.
Before the end of the half, the SCCS faithful got off their feet as Caden Starr drove inside the lane and dumped it off to Lowery for a monster two-hand dunk.
“He is such a high-level piece to the puzzle when you talk about playing at this level,” Mosley said about Lowery. “He’s a big guy that can pass and shoot and he’s been working hard. The growth that he has made over the last year is unbelievable and it’s a credit to his work ethic.
“We have challenged him and I’m just proud of where he’s at. Knowing where he was coming in as a sophomore with his athleticism, but to see him display that kind of skill makes me really proud of him.”
Harper continued where Lowery left off and hit a three to begin the second quarter scoring.
The Lions answered with inside-the-paint points from Paxton Burrell and Isaac Peralta to tie the game at 25 with under a minute left until halftime, but a Kyjuan Cannady three gave the Cardinals the three-point advantage, up 28-25 heading into the half.
Lowery picked up where he left off in the third quarter with five points to begin the second half, but Martinez answered with a similar five-point run to get within one, down 37-26.
After Burzell was called for a technical foul, Harper knocked down the two free throws and Starr started pushing his weight around inside the paint using his length and ball-handling skills to get deep inside the paint.
“I felt he adjusted and kind of got going, but he just made a couple bad decisions and got sped up by their physicality and made a bad pass over the top that turned into two points for them, Mosley said of Starr. “It breaks my heart for my seniors because I wanted to move on for them. Ultimately, with the game of basketball, you have to take the good with the bad and still be thankful for the talent and abilities that God has given you.”
With 20 seconds left in the third, Starr hit a three, but just like he had done before, Martinez answered with a 3 at the buzzer to give the JSerra (25-8) a one-point, 47-46 lead.
In a back-and-forth quarter, it seemed that things were swinging in the home team’s favor after a pull-up three by Harper for a 58-56 SCCS advantage with 2:03 left.
An acrobatic O’Garro layup gave the Cardinals a four-point lead, ahead 62-58 with under a minute to go. That’s when Martinez took over and stole the game from the Cardinals.
The Cardinals’ season comes to an end with a first-round exit in the state tournament, along with a CIF-SS Division 2AA title.
“For our guys, we just understand that it’s a process. For our seniors, we want to take care of them and for those guys coming back, we will be in the weight room, get to work and keep chasing that high level that we want to play at.”