IRVINE, Calif. (Feb. 12, 2009)—If last Friday’s narrow 79-78 victory over OCC was any indication, the Gauchos (22-7, 7-2 in OEC) knew that Wednesday’s road matchup with Irvine Valley was going to be anything but easy. Little did Saddleback know that their record held no power when the Lasers came back in the last seconds of the game to win by two points.
Saddleback, ranked No. 4 in the state entering the game, realized from the start that the Lasers (12-17, 2-8) were ready for a fight. IVC collected it’s first OEC victory last week against OCC and nearly beat Riverside, who was ranked No. 2 in the state at the time.
As if a conference rivalry wasn’t enough, it was also the second round of the 2009 Presidents’ Cup, with Saddleback taking the first two contests, both Men’s and Women’s, in January. Irvine Valley would have to sweep the Gauchos on this night if it were to keep the visitor’s from celebrating on their home floor.
The Gauchos, struggling to find their shot at the onset, trailed the Lasers led by as many as six points early on. Saddleback freshman forward Terrell Mack (Ft. Vancouver, WA) hit a bank shot that cut the Irvine Valley lead to 24-20.
With the Lasers shooting erratic three-pointers, the Gauchos were able to capitalize on their end of the floor. Sophomore guard Kevin Menner (Lincoln, NY) and freshman guard Kyle Wallace (Servite) nailed three-pointers to give the Gauchos their first lead of the game at 26-24. Sophomore guard Franklin Session (LA Jordan) then scored on a breakaway slam dunk and it appeared Saddleback was ready to pull away.
Freshman forward Kwame Alexander (Rancho Verde) hit four free throws in the closing minutes of the first half before Menner hit a jumper to give the Gauchos a five point lead at halftime, 33-28.
Still, Saddleback fans seemed uneasy in their seats as the IVC Homecoming King and Queen were crowned during intermission.
Could this be another game like OCC, where Saddleback nearly lost control and almost gave the game away? Their only loss in conference came against Riverside on Jan. 28, winning 16 straight games before that defeat. However, in addition to their one-point escape job against the Pirates, the Gauchos also had a difficult time with Santa Ana last Friday, so uneasiness began to creep in when IVC began the second half strong.
Sophomore forward Brandon Hucks (LB Wilson) drilled a three-pointer that cut the Laser deficit to 37-35, while Saddleback was busy dealing with an injury to Jackson, who fell awkwardly on his right ankle under the Gaucho basket on the prior possession. Irvine Valley had the momentum and the advantage, as their physical play led by sophomore center Matt Ballard (Trabuco Hills) and Alexander had Saddleback on their heels.
Freshman guard Travis Ballard (Canyon Springs) put the Lasers ahead 38-37 with a long-range bomb before Hucks was called for a technical foul. Saddleback’s Mack hit both technical free throws that put the Gauchos back up by one with 14:40 to play. Sophomore forward Jon Reed (Peninsula) blocked a driving layup by Saddleback freshman guard Malik Wilson (Paramount) that brought the Irvine Valley faithful to their feet.
Reed scored the next eight points for the Lasers as Saddleback missed free throws on the previous two possessions, as Irvine Valley grabbed the momentum with 12:58 to play. IVC’s center then blocked Session’s driving layup and on the next Laser possession, sophomore guard Jeff Ledbetter (Orange Lutheran) fed Alexander for a monstrous slam dunk that put Irvine Valley up 48-42 with 10:25 left in the game.
Saddleback rallied to tie the game at 48-48, led by freshman forward Billy Azizi (Eden Prarrie) and Menner. Ledbetter made a pretty reverse layup to put Irvine Valley back up by two, and with Hucks scooping in another layup, Saddleback desperately needed to score.
Session scored on a layup on an amazing play to make it 52-50 Irvine Valley with 5:20 to play. The Gauchos answered the Laser run by taking the lead 56-54 with 3:35 remaining, as Wallace hit two free-throws, Menner a layup and Azizi a jumper.
Both teams exchanged baskets, and with Saddleback up by two, the Lasers turned the ball over.
After a Gaucho timeout and 1:30 to play, Menner delivered what was thought to be the knockout blow, a two-point jumper that put Saddleback up 60-56.
Ledbetter had been quiet all game long, being shadowed by the Gauchos’ best perimeter defenders, but he saved his best for last. With 44 seconds to play, the guard nailed a three-pointer that again sent the IVC faithful to their feet.
Nevermind that the Gauchos were 7-1 in OEC play and the Lasers were 1-7. Forget the fact that Saddleback was in the double-bonus for free throws, while Irvine Valley had just 3.6 seconds remaining. That was all the time left in this heated contest, one that went back and forth all game long.
After the Gauchos called their last timeout, Ledbetter again was being hounded by defenders when he saw an opening.
A screen set up the shot, one that the packed Hart Gymnasium somehow knew would be coming. The emerald green and gold Presidents’ Cup sat perched behind the scorer’s table for all to see, the trophy awarded to the most deserving school.
Ledbetter caught the in-bounds pass and with fans screaming and coaches hollering, he let it go. With no time left on the clock, the sophomore guard did the unthinkable and shocked the OEC world. Irvine Valley 62, Saddleback 60. The Gauchos couldn’t avoid it this time, as IVC stuck around all game long.
Rivalries are meant to be like this, right? Is there any other way to start the Presidents’ Cup? After all, the Lady Gauchos lost the nightcap to Irvine Valley to officially split the rivalry series. Gauchos 2, Lasers 2. Tie-breaker anyone?