When they came to the end of regular season no one expected the Santa Margarita boy’s basketball team to make it to the second round, let alone the CIF Championships. Their first win took many people by surprise when they blew out Century High 59-29, and their post-season success continued from there. The Eagles took out three more playoff opponents before arriving at the gates of the Anaheim Convention Center Arena, and it looked like they were going to win there as well, until two minutes to go in the fourth. The Eagles’ Tyler Strauss got things rolling by scoring the first points of the game, bringing the SM crowd to their feet. There wasn't much time to celebrate however, because the first quarter was riddled with turnovers on both sides, possibly indicating some big-game nerves for the two teams, which until Thursday night had yet to experience a CIF Championship game. Inevitably with fast break chaos come fouls, which was the opportunity SM used to take the lead.
Joe Furstinger was the first one to the line for SM after contracting a foul in the paint, and proceeded to sink 1 of 2 free throws while SM students threw up “spirit fingers” in the background. Furstinger was followed to the line a few minutes later by Shane Cavanaugh of SM, whom nailed home both buckets. The free throws helped the Eagles stay in the game throughout the night, but Damien’s sharp shooters couldn't be denied as the Spartans sailed home shot after shot from beyond the arc. The high percentage of successful three-pointers came at a price for the Spartans, however. For every shot they made, they missed two more, leaving the ball to be rebounded continuously by Ryan Merritt and Furstinger throughout the night. SM’s first time out did not occur until 4:41 in the second quarter in order to prevent a turnover.
The timeout may have done more to help the Spartans than the Eagles though, because shortly thereafter Isaiah McCullough of Damien pulled off a reverse pivot and mid-range jumper against the defense of Furstinger, which caused the Damian crowd to jump to their feet in chorus of cheers. This provided a surge of energy for the Spartans as the game headed into the third quarter. The second half was dominated by the two team’s point guards (Jeremy Hemsley for Damien and Devonte Klines for SM) neither of which wasted any time bringing the ball down the court. As mentioned before, their break-neck pace in transition caused more than a couple turnovers, but it may have been Klines’ decision to stop providing his center with the ball in the fourth quarter that led to his team’s downfall.
Tyler Strauss of SM drives to basket amid Damien defenders. (below)
Unlike Hemsley, Klines opted to attack the basket on almost every possession, and unlike Hemsley, Klines had the athletic ability to be successful on almost every drive. There was even one beautiful turnover where Kliens took the dribble away from Hemsley and flew down the court for a one-handed dunk, earning the Eagles an energizing two points in transition. But comparisons cannot help but be drawn between Klines and Kobe Bryant, which is not the compliment it seems to be as first glance. There’s no question that Bryant can score 30 a game without aid from his teammates, but the fact remains that the Lakers do better when Bryant acts as a facilitator rather than purely as a scorer, and the same can be said of Klines and his Eagles.
When asked about his opinion on Klines’ game plan, Furstinger said, “He was doing good, I think it was the right call.” As the game wore on SM attempted to mix up the offense with a few pick and rolls, none of which were very successful. The athletic ability was certainly present between Merritt and Klines, but the execution simply wasn't there. Said Furstinger, “The pick and rolls were basically our main plan for the offense, but Damien was just playing really good defense.” Even the free throws started to fail SM as Merritt was sent to the line late in the third only to miss both attempts. But the real turning point came when Ayo Adedeji of Damien sank a three pointer in the third quarter, shifting the momentum in favor of the Spartans and taking the lead back from SM.
Unfortunately for SM, Damien proved to be a better closing team on Thursday. The Eagles managed to keep pace with the Spartans a little longer, but at that point their success at the line was all but over. Having run out of timeouts, SM was forced to make late-game fouls, giving Damien the free throws needed to pull beyond the Eagles’ offensive grasp. Those last two minutes were the hardest to watch for the SM fans. Furstinger sympathized with his fan’s emotions, and probably came to the same conclusion as many of them regarding the closing minutes of the game. “We just didn't play as a team,” he said.