Gauchos barely escape in 65-61 comeback victory

REBOUNDS A PLENTY (Andrew Bennett)

John Franz

There are positive and negative issues that result from being the top seeded team in the men’s Southern California Regional Basketball Playoffs. Saddleback almost learned that the hard way in last Saturday’s 65-61 victory over visiting Cerritos College.

The top-ranked Gauchos were down by eight points at halftime, but clawed back to tie the score, 46-46, with 12 minutes remaining to be played.

The game was back and forth the rest of the way with each team leading by no more than two points until Saddleback eventually took control in the last two minutes.

“We came out a little slow and they got up on us, said freshman guard T.J. Lipold.” We were down on ourselves at halftime and were down by eight. We were all going our separate ways and coach (Andy) Ground came in and told us we had to get it together.”

The Gauchos host No. 8 Chaffey Saturday night at 7 p.m. They can’t afford another slow start this deep into the playoffs like they did against No. 17 Cerritos, which had won its last 10 games.

“They have a bunch of good players that you have to keep your eye on,” Ground said of Chaffey.

The Panthers beat Bakersfield last Friday, 82-78. It has a 27-6 overall record.

The Gauchos came into the playoffs with a 25-7 overall record after winning the Orange Empire Conference title.

The week-long layoff for the Gauchos showed early as the Falcons came into the game playing some of their best basketball of the season.

The Falcons were aggressive and out-played the Gauchos for an early 10-point lead in the first half. But at halftime Saddleback was only down eight points, 36-28.

Perhaps the biggest adjustment was Ground’s strategy to put guard Franklin Session in the post. Session finished the game with nine points and also 11 rebounds and five assists for the Gauchos.

“I don’t usually play the post, but coach put me in there in the second half and it helped limit the Falcons getting rebounds,” Session said. “I am just glad it helped us get the win.”

Session’s dominance in the post slowed the big men of Cerritos College from getting offensive rebounds.

As the second half got under way, the Gauchos were playing harder and playing like the team that earned the top seed. The team came back with a strong defense and by the 12-minute mark, the Gauchos tied up the score at 46 with a basket by sophomore Kevin Menner.

The Falcons shot 24 percent in the second half after going for 44 percent in the first half.

“I knew exactly what I was doing, I switched Session over to the big guy and it helped us get back into the game” Ground said.

But in a night full of stars for the Gauchos, Menner was the brightest, he finished with 29 points and 11 rebounds.

With a 1:50 remaining in the game, freshman guard Terrell Mack hit a three-pointer that put the Gauchos up for good, 59-56.

Mack finished the game with 14 points, six rebounds, three blocks and an assist. He was only one for five from three-point land, but the three he did make came at the most crucial time in the game.

The Falcons were still flying around although, after Kyle Wallace made his two free throws pushing the lead to 63-56.

Then Falcons guard Jeremy Pope made a three-pointer to make it 63-59 with 28 seconds left and still a ball game.

The final nail in the coffin was a free throw made by Lipold, which pushed the Gaucho lead to four with three seconds remaining. Lipold finished the game with seven points and six rebounds.

The winner of this Saturday’s game advances to the State Finals where the top four teams will play March 12-15 at the Selland Arena in Fresno.

MaryAnne Shults contributed to this article.

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