For the seventh time in the last 11 seasons, the Saddleback men’s basketball team clinched the Orange Empire Conference championship on Friday.
The Gauchos wrapped up the title with an exhilarating, last-second victory over the Riverside Tigers. Going into the game, Saddleback and Riverside were tied atop the OEC standings each with records of 9-2. However, Riverside was ahead of the Gauchos by one game in their overall records.
Saddleback was well prepared and came out running on all cylinders.
The Gauchos held a comfortable lead for a majority of the first half, and built their lead up to 17 points with less than seven minutes to play in the contest.
Riverside would have appeared to be beaten to all of those outside their own bench.
The Tigers would not succumb to Saddleback so easily, going on an impressive run, culminating with a stolen inbound pass which Riverside converted into a lay-up to tie the game at 65 all with 37.4 seconds remaining in the game.
On the ensuing possession, Kyle Wallace held the ball for the Gauchos and, with the shot-clock dwindling down, found an open T.J. Lipold under the basket. Lipold would put in the basket with 8.2 seconds left in regulation.
Riverside would get one more chance that came up short to seal Saddleback’s victory and the OEC title with a final score of 67-65.
Lipold finished with only four points, but his final two were the most important.
Saddleback’s biggest contributions came from Franklin Session.
Session finished with 30 points going 10-for-20 from the field and eight-for-nine from the free-throw line.
Session also dominated on the glass with 16 total rebounds, including 10 on the defensive end. Session would also end with six steals and four assists in 39 minutes played. The OEC’s leading scorer, Kevin Menner, finished with 14 points, eight rebounds, two assists, and one steal for the Gauchos. Kyle Wallace also scored in double-figures for Saddleback with his 11 points and added one assist, which came on the game-winning basket.
Session’s performance was an exclamation point on a great individual season by the sophomore forward, for which he was honored on Sunday. Session was awarded with the OEC’s Most Valuable Player award. The award was just one of several honors the Saddleback team gained.
Session and Menner were named to the first team all-conference, and Wallace and Lipold were named honorable mention all-conference.
Coach Andy Ground was also honored with the OEC’s Coach of the Year award. Ground was following the footsteps of a Saddleback legend in former head coach Bill Brummel.
Brummel had been the head coach of the Gauchos for 27 of the last 28 seasons and led Saddleback to the State Semi-Finals four times, being State Runner-Up in 1987 and a State Championship in 2002.
Coach Ground continued the tradition of excellence that had been established by leading the Gauchos to a 25-7 overall record, 10-2 OEC record, OEC Championship, and a playoff berth.
Coach Ground and the Gauchos look to continue their success, first, in the southern California playoffs and, hopefully, into the state playoffs for a chance at the state championship. Saddleback earned a first-round bye with the No.1 overall seed in the southern California regional playoffs.
Their first playoff game will be on Saturday at 7:00 p.m. in the Saddleback Gym against an opponent to be determined in the first round play-in games today at various sites.