Wildcats boys’ basketball was ready for this one. West Ranch put on a dominating defensive performance in round two with Saugus on Friday.
The Wildcats won their 45th straight Foothill League game, defeating Saugus, 96-70.
Defensive efforts led to tons of transition points, which fueled the Cats (16-7, 9-0) as they put up their season high in points.
Senior forward James Evans led the way for West Ranch with 24 points along with seven rebounds and three steals. Evans made several dunks in transition, showcasing you can’t turn the ball over against the Wildcats.
The biggest factor in creating turnovers was center Tracy Bryden, who registered six blocks. The senior has joined the team after ending his sit-out period on Dec. 24, and has since been a dominant force in the middle of the paint.
“We played them earlier in the season, but I wasn’t able to play,” Bryden said. “Now with me and my presence there, they’re not able to get most of their looks that they can usually get. So when I’m stopping them they have to look to shoot or to pass. We’ve got Darrell Morris and James Evans, who are great defenders. We have underrated defenders in Jaden Robley and Zach Bauman. Those passing lanes are not open. So we’re gonna get ours and we’re gonna get outrun.”
West Ranch got off to a hot start across the box score. All starters scored in the first quarter, all of whom finished the game with 12 or more points. Robley added 15 points, five rebounds, one block and a steal for the Cats.
Senior guard Bishop Brooks, who has recently become the team’s sixth man, got in on the scoring early as well. Brooks was a proven 15-point per night scorer but has put the team first to come off the bench of the Wildcats’ deep roster.
“Bishop Brooks, he’s putting his pride to the side,” said Wildcats coach Jeff Bryant. “He’s coming off the bench and being the sixth man, but he’s playing starter minutes. He’s a big, valuable piece for us. That just shows you how deep we are when our third best player comes off the bench. I think Bishop is a top three player on the team.”
Evans set the tone early in the game. The UNLV commit had 11 points and five rebounds within the first four minutes of the game.
“We really attacked the paint and it started with James Evans,” Bryant said. “I told him, ‘You don’t need to shoot threes and jump shots. Just attack and go get layups all night long.’ Tonight he solidified why he’s the Player of the Year.”
Bryden found his stride in the second quarter, where he added the majority of his 14 points and eight rebounds.
“I was just trying to kill them, I really wanted to dunk,” Bryden said. “My first quarter is normally slow. I’m really more of a third-quarter kind of guy with a second wind. I just happened to get it in the second quarter so from there on out for the rest of the game, I was good to go and do my thing.”
West Ranch’s extra effort didn’t stop with defense. The team also brought down 10 offensive rebounds in the first half to bolster its 20-point lead.
Saugus (16-8, 7-2) played a fantastic offensive third quarter with a bold strategy. The Centurions went right at Bryden, who already had four blocks in the first half. Saugus’ plan worked as extra passing in the lane led to several tough layups. The plan worked on the offensive side as the Cents scored 26 points in the third, matching their entire first half total. However, the team coincidentally allowed West Ranch to have its best quarter on the offensive side, with 29 points.
Seniors Zach Bauman and Darrell Morris both hit a pair of 3-pointers in the third quarter. Morris hit his two consecutive shots behind the arc before dishing to Bauman on the next possession.
Bauman finished with game highs of four made 3-pointers and five assists. Morris, a tenacious defender, registered 16 points, four rebounds, four assists and two steals.
Saugus’ Matthew Correa was a tough defensive assignment in the contest. Correa had a solid shooting night and led Saugus with 18 points and six rebounds.
The Centurions never said die, despite being down over 30 points in the fourth quarter. Wyatt Wilson added all six of his points for Saugus in the fourth quarter, including a transition dunk that sent the student section into a frenzy.
For Bryant, having Bryden in the lineup was the main difference between Friday and round one with Saugus, which the Wildcats won by nine points.
“Tracy is a needle mover,” Bryant said. “We want him to come in here and do that the second half of the season. We told him, ‘You had to sit out, make sure when you come back that you move that needle,’ and that’s what he’s doing.”
Bryant is proud of his team for staying focused on the season and goals, despite the distractions and tough situation for junior Prince Okonkwo. The junior has played with the team since being cleared to play by the CIF in late November. About a month later, Bryant received a call that Okonkwo’s file was again under review and the forward would need to sit out until further notice.
Now another month is about to pass with still no ruling on Okonkwo, who has recently hired an attorney.
For Bryden, the team stays ready for anything and keeps their physical and mental health going strong.
“We’re a good family off the court,” Bryden said. “We do our best and take care of our bodies. Lately, we’ve been really strict with going to sleep. Our mental health is a huge focus, so we were just in our right minds and we were ready to go today.”
Bryant’s team has had some lackluster quarters in games earlier this season. Seeing his team go strong, with four consecutive 20-point or more quarters, has been a goal.
“That’s what we talked about,” Bryant said of his team’s energy. “‘Let’s have two good halves, with 32 minutes of solid basketball.’ And that’s what they did. We’re gearing up for the playoffs and I think we’re clicking at the right time.”
Saugus is still in great shape to make the postseason and still appears to be one of the top teams in Division 2AA. West Ranch will need a few more wins to lock up its fourth straight Foothill League title as well as a few more non-league wins to improve its resume in hopes of re-entering the CIF Open Division.
Both teams hit the road on Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. as Saugus heads to Hart, while West Ranch takes on Valencia.