by Cerwin D. Haynes
(photos by @MikeNike__13)
Entering the 2020 CCCAA Playoffs as a favorite to get to the State title game, East Los Angeles College was looking to avoid a third-straight home playoff loss. Their opponent, the Saddleback College Gauchos, presented a unique challenge combination for this current edition of Huskies: a well-coached team with a rare height advantage over ELAC in the paint. But the Huskies overcame the challenge and their opponent, defeating Saddleback 69-53 to move on in the CCCAA Playoffs. SCC-North Player of the Year Kealen Allen came alive late in the 2nd half, scoring 11 of his team-high 13 points in the final 10:08 of the game. Behind that was a balanced scoring effort by a handful of All-SCC North honorees: First Teamers Levelle Zeigler and Malik Mohammed each scored nine points, while two more First Teamers - Deshaun Highler and Joseph Hampton - along with Second Teamer Jordan Polynice all scored eight apiece.
The first few minutes of the ballgame gave a glimpse into the Gauchos' strategy: double-team Hampton hard, use their height grab offensive rebounds and score in the paint and keep the score relatively low. So at the 14:43 mark of the first half with a 9-8 lead, head coach John Mosley sent in the fiery Hampton along with point guard Taj Regans (who's known for his pestering, high intensity defense) to inject energy into the Huskies on the floor. Along with subs Marquis Copeland and Kristopher Smith, ELAC went on a 11-3 push to give themselves a 21-11 at the 9:51 mark of the half. Saddleback would answer that with three straight layups by their big men (two for 6' 9" forward Keegan Cummins, and one by 6' 11" forward Dillon Waikle) to cut the lead to four at 21-17. The Huskies would then push back with an 8-0 spurt (fueled by two three pointers by Zeigler and Regans and a jumper by Polynice) to take a 12-point lead, 31-19, with 3:22 to go in the half. But they weren't done: after a jumper by Saddleback guard David Dial, ELAC would rip off seven more points in a row, capped by Regans' second three-pointer of the half. At 38-21 with 1:19 left before halftime, it looked like the Huskies were going to mush towards 20-point advantage by the end of the period. But the 5' 9" Dial, the Gauchos leading scorer at over 14 points per game, would convert a tough layup plus the foul. With the made free throw, the Huskies' momentum was halted, but they still managed to get to haltime up 38-24.
The second half saw more of the Joe Hampton experience: his three-pointer at the 15:58 mark gave ELAC a 43-26 lead. But then the game turned into a grinding, defensive battle: neither team scored over the next four minutes of play. The Gauchos would break the scoring silence by turning to 6' 10" George Maslennikov - he would hit a free throw and later a layup to trim the Huskies' lead to 14. A three-ball by reserve guard Simaine Stewart-Jenkins would give East a 49-31 lead with 8:37 to go, and it appeared ELAC was setting up to deliver a knockout blow to the visitors. But Saddleback showed their resiliency: a 9-2 scoring advantage would whittle the Huskies' lead to 11 with 4:54 to go. Some wondered if the Gauchos had one more push to close the lead late.
Enter Kealen Allen.
Frustrated by Saddleback's size and defensive scheming to neutralize him, he finally found a way to impact the game. He would score the next 11 points for the Huskies: a pair of free throws, a power jam off a nice feed from Hampton, an alley-oop dunk from Polynice (off a brilliant playcall by Coach Mosley), another free throw, and another dunk (assisted by Zeigler). In over three minutes of play, Hampton would outscore the Gauchos 11-5 to give his Huskies a 60-45 lead with 1:26 left and essentially put the game away for the home team.
- Saddleback grabbed 21 offensive rebounds and took 70 shots to ELAC's 51. But the Gauchos only hit 31.4% of their shots and missed 21 of 24 three-point attempts.
- Along with their defense, East was able to neutralize Saddleback's shot advantage by getting to the line, making 21-29 free throws (the Gauchos on shot 6-11 from the charity stripe).
- David Dial led all scorers with 17 points.
- Despite Saddleback's big men, the Huskies still managed to block seven shots (Malik Muhammed had four) to just two for the visiting Gauchos.
- About that alley-opp from Polynice to Hampton late in the second-half: Coach Mosley appeared to shout some playcalling instruction to his players on the floor, and it looked like ELAC was content to run some clock before making a move to the basket. Zeigler, Highler and Polynice took turns tossing the ball back and forth from well behind the three-point arc (and away from Saddleback's trapping defenders); all of a sudden, Polynice floated a high arching pass towards the basket where Allen appeared almost out of nowhere (behind the Gauchos' defense). KJ caught the ball mid-air and slammed it home to fire up his teammates and the home crowd.
- The Huskies will host one more playoff game: a Sweet Sixteen matchup with Western State-North conference member Allan Hancock College (23-6) next Saturday at 7pm. If ELAC defeats the Bulldogs, they will then head north to West Hills-Lemoore to compete in the state's Elite-Eight round. Allan Hancock went on the road yesterday to defeat Southwestern 67-61.