LONG BEACH — A listless start, sloppy play and defensive problems had Long Beach Poly trailing by eight through the first half of its CIF Southern Section boys basketball playoff opener Friday night, and the Jackrabbits could see where it was leading.
Head coach Shelton Diggs laid into them, and, junior guard Christian Watson noted, “We told ourselves this is not how we’re going to end our season.”
Watson went off in the third quarter, scoring 11 points while leading an effective transition game, and the fifth-ranked Jackrabbits took charge behind a defensive effort that limited visiting Village Christian to just two points — both on free throws — then pulled away in the final quarter to a 63-48 Division 2AA second-round victory.
Watson scored 22 points as his older brother — UCLA-bound McDonald’s All-American Peyton Watson — cheered him on from the stands, Rafael Cruz had nine of his 14 in the fourth quarter and grabbed 10 rebounds, and Poly (12-3) romped into Tuesday’s quarterfinals at No. 4 Orange Lutheran (12-8), a 48-43 winner over Westlake.
The Jackrabbits used a 30-6 run from the final seconds of the first half to just past the midpoint of the fourth quarter to turn a disappointing encounter into a good time.
“Our defensive intensity wasn’t working (in the first half), and they were able to do whatever they wanted to do,” Diggs said. “Second half, we took them out of what they wanted to do, and we finally made some shots. … We got stops, and (Watson) was able to get on the transition, and he’s great in transition.”
Poly is a different team without Peyton Watson, a blue-chip prospect already getting first-round 2022 NBA draft buzz who stepped away from the team this month to focus on USA Basketball’s preparations for the July 3-11 FIBA U-19 World Cup in Latvia and his first season in Westwood. He averaged 30 points in seven games for the Jackrabbits.
Village Christian (12-6), utilizing a quick and at-times suffocating zone defense and a penetrating attack led by sophomore point guard Immanuel Taylor, had a lead after three minutes, pushed it to four by the end of the first quarter, and were up by 10 early in the second. Poly got within after a Watson 3-pointer and Lorenzo Marsh’s lean-in basket from the lane midway through the quarter before the Crusaders pushed the advantage to 35-11.
It was the Jackrabbits’ game the rest of the way. Anthony Robinson’s last-second 3-pointer rattled around the rim and in to end the first half, and Watson drove the lane for a basket and then put away a 3 to start the third quarter, and Poly took its first lead since the opening minutes as Watson went the length of the court for a layin with 2:46 to go in the quarter.
Powel Mousaian made a pair of free throws about 40 seconds later to restore Village Christian’s lead, but a 3-point Watson play 40 seconds after that put Poly up for good.
The Jackrabbits’ lead was 10 midway through the fourth quarter and grew to 17 twice in the last minute. They held Village to 0-for-12 shooting in the third quarter and 5-for-27 in the second half.
“They kept coming at us, and we never responded and (couldn’t) adjust,” Crusaders head coach Julian Andrade said. “Down by 8, we knew they were going to come hard, and we didn’t respond to their energy.”
Watson said it was a matter of needing to “figure out what they were doing (defensively).”
“In the third and fourth quarter, I kind of figured out how they were covering stuff, and it opened up …,” he said. “If we come out like we did in the third and fourth, I don’t think any team can beat us.”
Jalen Pitre scored 11 points and grabbed eight rebounds Lorenzo Marsh added 8 points, and Robinson scored 6. Mousaian came off the bench to lead Village Christian with 13 points and grabbed six rebounds, and Deshawn Warren scored 12 points before fouling out with 91 seconds to play.