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CIF-SS D-2AA BOYS BBALL PLAYOFFS- Valley Christian squanders fourth quarter lead, runs out of steam in overtime


February 16, 2022

By Loren Kopff • @LorenKopff on Twitter


HACIENDA HEIGHTS-There was a moment when the Valley Christian High boys basketball team was going in for a potential kill shot against Los Altos High in last Friday night’s CIF-Southern Section Division 2AA first round game. The Defenders, who had led the entire second half, was up by seven points with 4:29 remaining in the regulation.

But a crucial technical foul called on junior T.J. Waters with 90 seconds left in regulation allowed C.J. Bellamy to sink two free throws, followed by one from Jazz Gardner 10 seconds later to dwindle V.C.’s lead to 49-47. After senior Nathan Medina put the Defenders up by three points with a pair of free throws with 18.1 seconds left, Gardner sent the game into overtime on a three-pointer with 9.3 ticks left. V.C. would run out of the steam in overtime and out of the playoffs after the 66-58 loss.

“I always look at basketball games as a group of plays; a mass amount of plays,” said V.C. first-year head coach Tom Lewis. “You can always pick out one or two things you could have done differently. But it’s the percentages; the overall plays. Not just one or two.”

The Defenders had the seventh-ranked team in the division right where it wanted them throughout the first half. The game was tied four times in the first quarter, the teams alternated leads eight times in the half and neither team had a lead greater than four points, which came when Jerimiyah Smith put the hosts up 20-16 with 2:42 left in the second quarter. V.C. then scored the next five points before Gardner’s buzzer-beating basket ended the half at 22-21. The defense from both sides was solid in the half with V.C. shooting 10 of 22 from the field and Los Altos eight of 21.

“Our goal was to keep the score under 50 [points],” said Lewis. “I felt if we kept it under 50, we would have a chance to win, and we were right there. We had them where we needed them. We had to make a couple more plays here and there. But our goal was to keep them under 50. At halftime, it was 22 and we were right on pace with what we needed them to do.”

Half a minute into the second half, V.C. regained the lead on consecutive baskets from Medina and maintained a lead of at least three points the entire third quarter until a three-pointer from Medina as time ran out in the stanza increased the lead to 37-32, Medina, the backbone of V.C.’s offense all season and throughout most of his four-year high school career, was on fire in the stanza, connecting on six of eight shots from the field and scored 14 of the team’s 16 points.

“You have to give them credit; the guys really wanted it,” said Lewis. “Nate got going. The one thing I was hoping that they didn’t do in this game was double Nate, and they didn’t. We also realized that Gardner…they switched Gardner on the people on pick and rolls. Once we saw that on tape, we were trying to expose that because we thought Nate could take them off the dribble.”

The Defenders would keep the pressure going into the fourth quarter as freshman Michael Wright converted a three-point play 46 seconds in to make it a 40-34 affair. Three free throws from sophomore Myles Harvey with 5:35 left still kept it a six-point advantage and a three-pointer from Waters with 4:29 seconds left gave V.C. its largest lead of the game,

But little by little, it slipped away when you thought it couldn’t. Gardner, the 7’1” junior star for the Conquerors, hit a pair of free throws 40 seconds later, followed by a three-pointer from John Corina. Medina answered with his final three-pointer of his high school career before the technical shots, and possession from Los Altos changed the complexion of the contest.

In overtime, the Conquerors scored the first eight points before the Defenders finally scored with 49.4 seconds left in the game. All they got in the extra four minutes were a basket from Medina and a three-pointer from Wright.

“When you’re right there at the end, and then it doesn’t turn out that way…they hit a big shot, it takes a lot of air out of you,” said Lewis. “We had a lot of air. We missed our first couple of shots in overtime and never got in the flow of things.”

Medina paced the Defenders with 27 points, nine rebounds, two assists, two steals and a blocked shot. It was the 21st time this season he scored at least 20 points while Bellamy led Los Altos with 25 points and Gardner, held to a mere four points through the first three quarters, finished with 14 points.

“He has a bright future ahead of him,” said Lewis of Gardner. “They deserved to win, they hit the big shots, they made the plays. Obviously, it changes the whole dynamics of your offense because when you’re going in the paint, he can guard a lot of people with his length. He’s a good kid and I wish him the best of luck.”

After a rocky 4-5 start to the season, V.C. won the next eight games to put itself in a position to gain a respectable 17-11 record. It’s the third best record by a V.C. first-year head coach in the past 25 seasons. During the 2006-2007 season, Bryan Branderhorst went 22-7 and advanced to the quarterfinals in the first of his 12 seasons while Dan Leffler’s rookie campaign in 2000-2001 netted him an 18-11 mark and a trip to the quarterfinals.

“I think when you take over a job and I took the job late, you have to change the culture and you have to change the philosophy; our style,” Lewis said. “Our kids adapted. We have four kids who played on the [junior varsity] team last year that never played varsity. We played an extremely difficult schedule.

“Nate was asked to do a mass amount of work for us,” he continued. “He got beat up throughout the year. But at the end of the day, Nate gives me everything he has and he deserves everything he gets. I’m very proud of him.”