(Sean Lara / Lariat Staff)
One year ago, the Saddleback College men’s basketball team eliminated Chaffey College in the Southern California Regional final in a tight 63-61 decision. A 12 months’ absence from each other did not make either team that much fonder of the other.
Despite some late free-throw trouble, the sixth-seeded Gauchos repeated the act and held on 66-64 semifinal victory over the 11th-seeded Panthers on Friday (Feb. 26).
After going seven-of-nine from the free-throw line in the first half, Saddleback only managed to go 14-of-25, 56 percent, in the second half.
“We were fortunate,” Saddleback coach Andy Ground said. “We were four-of-12 in the last two minutes, and held on there.”
The win pushed Saddleback’s record to 25-5 overall. Saddleback will either play at third-seeded Riverside or host 14th-seeded Los Angeles Valley next Saturday at 7 p.m.
“We expect it to be Riverside,” Ground said. “L.A. Valley is not good enough to beat Riverside. They’re too strong.”
If Ground’s prediction is true, the Gauchos will won’t be intimidated.
“We already beat them at Riverside,” Saddleback guard Perry Webster. “We know we can beat them. They probably weren’t happy to see us on their side of the bracket.”
On Friday, Saddleback knew they had a challenge before even thinking about another State championship final rematch with Riverside.
The Gauchos’ third-ranked defense was able to corral the No. 6 offense of Chaffey and held the Panthers to 40.7 percent shooting from the field. Saddleback shot 42.9 percent. This kept the game manageable managable for Saddleback.
“We knew it would be difficult,” Webster said. “They’re small and have a lot of scorers. In the second half, we wanted to limit their chances and challenge them.”
After former Gaucho Cornell Jenkins’ free throws tied the game at 35 going into halftime, Chaffey got out to an early six-point lead.
Saddleback countered by going on a 17-4 run to take a 59-50 lead with just under six minutes remaining. The Gauchos free-throw trouble ensued.
Chaffey crawled back and kept a consistent four-point deficit down the stretch.
With about 12 seconds remaining, Webster missed two potential game-sealing free throws.
Chaffey quickly went down the floor and brought the Gaucho lead down to one with 4.6 seconds remaining.
After the ensuing foul, Tyler McManaman missed the first of two bonus free throws. He made the second for a 66-64 lead with 2.9 seconds left.
Kyle Wallace tipped the Panthers’ next long pass out of bounds with 0.5 seconds left, and Chaffey missed a desperation shot to seal the game.
McManaman led the Gauchos with 16 points and added three rebounds and three assists. Webster was close behind with 14 points, three assists, and three steals.
Saddleback’s road to the State championships won’t be an easy one, looking forward to a potential third match with Orange Empire Conference champion Riverside.
“We just have to play our game,” Webster said. “We have to hang our hat on our defense, because defense wins championships. I’m confident our coaches will come up with the right game plan for us.”
Coach Ground’s preliminary game plan looks to be another tight, hard-fought effort between the rivals.
“We’re confident we can play with them,” Ground said. “It’s going to take one hell of an effort.”