OEC player of the year Conor Clifford led both teams in points and was one of many reasons the Gauchos pulled out the victory. (Courtesy of Saddleback Sports Information)
On a night most would call a school night, there was a reason to celebrate Saddleback College’s men’s basketball team for defeating the Mt. San Jacinto College Eagles, 99-75. With the win the Gauchos have an overall record of 30-2 and will move on to play in the finals of the California Community College Athletic Association regional championships.
The game looked to be a classic match-up from the start with each team having their own conference player of the year, Samuel Williams from MSJ and Conor Clifford from the Gauchos. But, as the game progressed Saddleback proved the were the more dominant team. Saddleback shot 59.7 percent from the field, out-rebounded MSJ by 16 and had a little more than double the assists with 27 and 13 respectively.
Orange Empire Conference coach of the year and Gaucho head coach Andy Ground believed his team played well, but in the end still made some mistakes. One of these mistakes was the fact that Saddleback committed 13 turnovers, compared to the Eagles nine. Ground was particularly not happy with the way his team played on the defensive side of the ball.
“Well, I thought we shot the ball extremely well and I thought we defended very poorly,” Ground said.
In the first half of the game the Gauchos started good getting an easy 16-6 lead over the Eagles. A little more than 10 minutes into the game though, MSJ came back with tons of momentum and brought the score to 22-19. The Eagles could have had the lead if it were not for some questionable shots by their guard PeeWee Gardner.
Saddleback turned on the jets late in the first half getting their lead back up to 42-32 with under three minutes to go in the half. After two easy layups by MSJ, the Gauchos ended the half in spectacular fashion with seven straight points and they led 49-36 at halftime.
When the second half begun, the Gauchos never looked back and lead the entire half. MSJ had no answers for Gaucho freshman Josh Mishler and sophomores Andrew Bournes and Clifford. Saddleback’s smallest lead in the half was 60-47 and their largest being 99-72 very late in the game.
“I felt like we lacked a little bit on defense,” Bournes said. “Overall though, we got the job done and that’s most important and we came together as a team and got this done.”
Saddleback’s leading scoring for the second consecutive game was Clifford. He scored 22 points and had many of the Gauchos key baskets and free throws down the stretch. Clifford was very happy about his teams win.
“It feels awesome, this has been our goal to get to this point all year long, so it feels awesome,” Clifford said.
The Gauchos now move on to possibly their biggest test of the season, a game against the San Bernardino Valley College Wolverines with a chance to go to the state tournament. The Wolverines are 31-2 on the season and gave Saddleback one of their two losses on the season.
Ground said that his team needs to be better for their next game and believes the Wolverines are a good team.
“I think they are well coached, they’re athletic, they can shoot it and if we play anything like we did tonight we’re going to get beat by 20,” Ground said.
The loss to SBVC earlier in the season is still on some of the Gauchos minds and they think that the game on Saturday will be a good one.
“They’ve been more or less our rivals for this year, giving us one of our defeats, so it’s to be a good game,” Clifford said. “Whoever comes out more physically and mentally prepared is going to come out a winner.”
“We are looking forward to them,” Bournes added.
The Gauchos and Wolverines will play at Saddleback College on Saturday, Mar. 7, at 7 p.m.