The East Los Angeles College men’s basketball team’s hopes of hoisting its first state championship banner were shattered by top-seeded Saddleback College, 50-47 in the California Community College Athletic Association State title game March 15 at Cerritos College.
It was the Huskies’ first-ever state championship game appearance.
“I’m proud of these guys and excited about their futures,” ELAC coach John Mosley said. “To be able to come from a No. 13 seed and having to play a play-in game to get here is amazing.”
The inside presence of Saddleback’s 7-foot, 270-pound center Conor Clifford proved to be too much for the Huskies. Clifford dominated under the basket by scoring a game-high 16 points and grabbing six rebounds.
“That’s the strength of their game and we knew that that would be the case,” Mosley said. “We just tried to limit it and make it tough for the big fella.”
When he wasn’t going to the basket or reaching for a rebound, Clifford used his bulky frame to set screens and clear a path to the basket for the Gauchos. In fact, Saddleback outscored ELAC in the paint, 30-8.
Sophomore guard Andrew Bournes added 14 points for the Gauchos, who finished the season 33-2 and won their third state title in school history.
The Huskies started off the game with an early 10-2 run connecting on three three-point baskets and maintained the lead for most of the game.
ELAC led 28-25 at halftime and didn’t relinquish the lead until Saddleback’s Dusty Baker hit a jump shot to give his team a 46-45 lead with 2:57 left to play.
Baker’s basket started a 6-2 game-ending run by the Gauchos.
After scoring a season-high 23 points two days earlier in ELAC’s 94-83 win over Merritt College in the semifinals, sophomore forward Primitivo Gomez scored five points against Saddleback, all of which were in the first half.
Sophomore guards Je’Ron Primus (3 points) and Marcus Romain (1 point) struggled to get into an offensive flow as the duo also went scoreless in the second half.
“I just never developed a rhythm. The calls weren’t going my way and I didn’t get the usual shot attempts that I’m accustomed to getting,” Romain said. “It was just a bad game for me. I feel like I let my team down.”
Romain went 0-for-4 from the field and committed five turnovers.
Freshman forward Marquis Salmon was the Huskies’ leading scorer with 15 points. Guard Michael Cardenas finished with eight points and guard Te’Shon Burton came off the bench to also score eight points.
“Offensively, not being able to get a good shot really hurt,” Mosley said. “We talked all year about having good possessions, and we came up short on our possessions.”
Possessions have been an ongoing issue for the Huskies all season.
Before entering the playoffs, ELAC averaged 24 turnovers in conference play and 21 overall.
Against Saddleback, they committed 18. Saddleback also had 18 turnovers.
Despite his team’s struggle on offense, Mosley had nothing but praise for his team afterward.
“This team fought and a showed a lot of character in coming back from losing a couple games [in the middle of the season] to make it to the state championship game,” said Mosley, whose teams are 63-28 in three seasons at ELAC.
The Huskies finished the season 22-11. They were 8-8 before winning nine of 11 to make the Southern California state playoffs as the No. 13 seed. Teams selected for playoff spots 13-20 are placed in play-in games.
ELAC defeated Victor Valley (96-91) in a home play-in game and went on the road to defeat No. 4 Antelope Valley (111-106), No. 5 Southwestern (79-65), No. 8 Long Beach (92-73), and Merritt at Cerritos to make it to the championship game.
Contributing writer Mario Villegas contributed to this story.