Santa Ana – Narrowly clearing two Orange Empire Conference hurdles may have been Irvine Valley’s biggest boost of the season.
But it’s the speed bumps, such as Friday’s 92-73 victory over Santa Ana (9-12, 1-2), that help keep the second-ranked Lasers (20-2, 4-0) in check.
“We’re in the middle of a six-game road period in the best conference in the state where everyone is capable of beating anyone,” said Lasers coach Jerry Hernandez. “We are equally concerned with teams like Santa Ana, Saddleback, Orange Coast and Cypress as we are with power houses like Fullerton and Riverside.”
The thrill of coming back from a 15-point deficit in the second half to defeat eighth-ranked Fullerton, 91-84, Jan. 11 in double overtime was nearly matched five days later when IVC pulled out a 63-62 road win over No. 4 Riverside.
Cook Gymnasium hinted that same excitement Friday when the Lasers saw their 43-26 halftime lead dwindle to single digits after a three-point play by Dons freshman David Brandon capped off the hosts’ rally five minutes into the second half.
The agitation lingered until mid-way through the half, as Santa Ana remained at striking distance, coming as close as eight points under the leadership of sophomore guard Tyre Thompson, who finished with a game-high 27 points and six rebounds.
“Every game is so critical to where we want to be and eventually where we want to end up, so these victories are very crucial for us,” said IVC’s sophomore forward Blake Wallace, who finished with 14 points, nine rebounds and four assists. “We don’t want to throw away what we’ve worked so hard for so far this season so, to us, we play every game like it’s our last.”
Three minutes and an 11-0 run later, the Lasers were back in control. Freshman guard Jeff Ledbetter led both the breakaway and the night, finishing with four rebounds and a team-high 19 points on 7-10 shooting from the field.
Ledbetter is one of several players in IVC’s deep bench who has proved to be critical in the team’s hot start.
Freshman guard Franklin Session finished with nine points, guard Perry Webster had five points and forward Brandon Hucks added five rebounds to supplement the leadership of point guard La’Shard Anderson and the power of IVC’s three starting sophomores from Division I programs, Bryce Webster, Kashif Watson and Wallace.
“The unsung heroes of the bunch have to be Perry, Brandon and Franklin,” Wallace said. “I feel like whenever things aren’t going well, they always seem to make a huge contribution, one that may not show in the stats, but you definately know it was a momentum changer at the time.”
Anderson had 10 points and seven assists on the night. Webster capped off the quartet of Laser double digit scorers with 16 points and Watson finished with nine points and four rebounds.
Friday’s win marked the Lasers’ ninth straight since back-to-back tournament losses over a month ago.
The 77-74 loss to LA City College in the Dec. 8 finals of the Rio Hondo Tournament snapped IVC’s 11-win start to the season. LA Trade Tech College defeated IVC, 77-68, five days later in the first round of the Saddleback Tournament.
“The two losses were definately somewhat of a waking up call for us,” Wallace said. “Since those two losses I feel we’ve been working harder in practice and I feel we’re playing better as a team.”
The win boosted IVC from third to second in the state-wide coaches poll.
IVC will play the third of its six road game tour Jan. 23 at Cypress. Tip-off is at 5:30 p.m.
“Even though we are this far into the seaon, we have a tremendous amount to work on,” Webster said. “We are alays looking to improve. we don’ think we are unbeatable.