Wildcats use 13-5 run to close game, beat Saugus at home, 73-66
West Ranch Wildcats boys hoops’ longstanding winning streak in the Foothill League lived to see another day.
Despite a ferocious attempt by the visiting Saugus Centurions (5-2, 2-1) to end that streak, the Wildcats (4-2, 3-0) made it 39 straight wins in league play at home on Tuesday with a 73-66 victory.
“I knew coming in tonight that it was gonna be a tough game,” West Ranch head coach Jeff Bryant said. “You know, Foothill League games are tough because other teams have a lot of time to scout us and Saugus, they always play us hard. They’re always well prepared. But yeah, I think at the end, it’s just we found a way. We wanted to win.”
Wildcats sophomore Prince Okonkwo was crucial down the stretch, grabbing three offensive rebounds and recording four points in the fourth quarter. He emphatically slammed home a dunk in the final minute to seal the win after the Wildcats trailed by as much as 10 in the second quarter.
Okonkwo finished with 12 points and 10 rebounds.
“It’s really just my team working together,” Okonkwo said. “We’re staying together. No one’s getting mad at each other, everyone’s staying positive.”
The Wildcats saw senior James Evans lead the way with 18 points, followed by fellow senior Bishop Brooks with 17. Evans also helped out with six assists, six rebounds and three steals while Brooks had six steals.
The Centurions went to West Ranch fully expecting to leave with a win, Saugus head coach Alfredo Manzano said, and they started the game with that exact mentality. The two teams were trading baskets throughout the first half before Saugus found another gear in the second quarter.
The Centurions led at the half, 42-35.
“We came in with no doubt that we could play or win with them,” Manzano said. “So what I learned is that we got to fix some things. This has nothing to do with like, ‘Oh, you know, we’re so close,’ or this or that. We came in knowing and believing that we can win this game.”
Saugus was led by seniors Peter Burton and Justin Perez with 19 points apiece. Senior Matt Correa was close to a triple-double with 11 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists.
“That’s what he does,” Manzano said of Correa. “Rebounds, assists, and the main thing that made Matt get a lot of minutes last year was his defense and his intensity. So, he’s in there for that.”
Burton hit a couple of threes in the third quarter to spark the Centurions, leading Manzano to give him the green light to keep shooting, but the shots simply did not fall when they needed them late in the game.
“Normally, when you hit two, as a coach you want to give the freedom to your guy to keep shooting,” Manzano said. “He had the confidence to take two clutch shots, so he took a couple after that. They didn’t fall in.”
The Centurions committed eight turnovers in the third quarter as the Wildcats pulled ahead to take a 54-53 advantage into the final frame.
Bryant credited the defensive pressure that the Centurions put on his team for the slow start.
“They’re well-coached, and when they play against us, it’s their championship game,” Bryant said. “Every year, it doesn’t matter how talented we are, we know that Saugus is gonna give us a hard game.”
Wildcats senior point guard Darrell Morris was perhaps the catalyst for getting the Wildcats back into their groove in the second half. After missing on all of his shot attempts in the first half, Morris finished the game with 13 points, three assists and four steals.
Okonkwo praised Morris for being able to return to form despite his first-half performance.
“He was huge,” Okonkwo said. “He’s my point guard. I love my point guard. He’s huge. He knows what to do. He knows how to feed me when I need to be fed. He’s my point guard. I love him.”
Bryant said that Morris took his halftime speech to heart and “he woke up in the second half.”
“He started to attack the rim,” Bryant said. “They’re gonna dare him to shoot because he hasn’t had a good shooting year. So, he attacked the rim and the second half and that’s kind of what helped us win this game.”
West Ranch is scheduled to face the Valencia Vikings (4-4, 1-2) at home on Friday.
Saugus is set to host the Hart Indians (4-4, 2-0) on Friday. Manzano is hopeful that the way his bench players have been cheering on the Centurions on the court, despite most not getting many minutes throughout the year, will continue as the season goes on.
“Those are all guys that are bought in,” Manzano said. “They don’t care if they’re playing or not. They just care about the team and put the team first. It’s not common that you see that because, in today’s age with social media and a bunch of other stuff, if guys are not playing they’re moping and then eventually become cancers. These guys are dialed in, calling out the other teams’ plays, calling out shooters, everything. I want to applaud them because they’ve been very, very solid for us.”