The third-seeded Torrey Pines boys basketball team overcame a sluggish start and a persistent opponent to escape Saturday night’s CIF Open Division quarterfinal with a 58-54 decision over visiting Poway. The Falcons, paced by senior guard Bryce Pope’s game high 28 points were up 32-27 at halftime but were never able to put away the sixth-seeded Titans who got 16 points from junior guard Adam Sevier.
The victory improved the Avocado West League champion’s overall record to 23-6 and means it will be hosting defending champion Mission Bay next Wednesday. The seventh-seeded Buccaneers, who eliminated Torrey Pines in the semis on the way to last year’s title, upset No. 2 seed St. Augustine to reach the final group of four. Poway, winner of the Palomar League, dropped to 22-7.
First quarter circumstances did not bode well for Torrey Pines against a squad it downed by 25 in mid-November. From the outset, utilizing the “eye test,” the Falcons appeared to be the superior team but once Poway overcame some initial offensive difficulties, the Titans started creating some problems of their own.
The combination of nifty passing, opportunistic offensive rebounding, much of it from the back side, and sloppy play by Torrey Pines allowed Poway to open up a 15-8 advantage by the end of the first period.
“Give them credit—they came out and played switching defenses, really extended on us and we didn’t respond well,” said Olive. “We missed a couple of shots, had some turnovers—I think we turned the ball over four of our first five possessions—and that’s not a good way to start a game.” Another indicator was the fact that neither of the team’s two top scorers, twins Michael and Bryce Pope, had a bucket in the first eight minutes. Bryce echoed his coach’s sentiments in regard to his team’s first quarter struggles.
“We knew they were a really good team, real physical, but we were just careless with the ball and weren’t hitting our shots in the beginning,” he said. “But we just stayed with it, got it straightened out and executed down the stretch.” Of no small significance was the role (Bryce) Pope played in the Falcons’ turnaround, netting 10 second quarter points and spearheading a two-minute stretch where Torrey took command on the scoreboard.
With his club still trailing by seven, (Bryce) Pope had a steal and a lay-in to cut it to five at the 3:30 mark. Following a Poway miss, Pope was fouled while draining a three, sank the free throw and forced the Titans to call a timeout holding just a one-point edge. At the 2:10 mark, Bryce drove the lane, kicked it out to his brother on the left wing and with a quick three-point-sinking flick of the wrist, Torrey Pines grabbed its first lead, 27-25. (Bryce) Pope then converted another pair of charity shots and a with drive to the rim culminated a game-changing, 13-2, run in which he had a hand in every point.
The second half was a series of Poway advances, thwarted off by (Bryce) Pope and his cohorts. The Titans narrowed it to 35-33 midway through the third quarter but back-to-back lay-ins by Pope to it back to seven just over a minute later. A trey by Sevier deadlocked the contest at 44 to open the fourth period but Michael Pope responded with a traditional three-point play and after junior Brandon Angel drilled a three-pointer from the baseline to give Torrey a four-point cushion with 4:15 to go, Bryce Pope accounted for the final six as TP choked off the clock.
Handed the majority of the ball-handling chores this season, Pope has nonetheless continued to be a primary scoring threat and has averaged just under 20 points in the 11 outings since Avocado West League play began Jan. 9. His 18 second half points were largely by design.
“We limited them in second half by controlling the backboards,” said Olive. “We felt if we could control the backboards and make good outlet passes, we would not only have good defense but good offense on the other end.
“As far as Bryce, I called his number quite a few times tonight, ran a lot of plays for him, particularly down the stretch.” Pushed on the reasons for featuring his talented senior, the veteran deadpanned, “I like the way he scores.”
Now it’s on to Mission Bay, led by Duke-bound guard Boogie Ellis. With all due respect to Ellis & Co., Olive is more concerned about his own unit’s performance.
“At this time of the year, obviously you want to be playing well and you’ve got to get the win because there’s no tomorrow,” said Olive, who has a pair of D-1 championships on his Torrey Pines resume but has had two runner-up finishes since the CIF inaugurated the Open Division five years ago. “We got the win tonight but it wasn’t pretty. We had way too many turnovers.
“I don’t care where it is or who we’re playing, we’ve got to eliminate our mistakes or we’re not going to win a CIF Championship. That said, it’s nice to have a home game. Playing Mission Bay we know Boogie’s going to be a handful—but we’re glad we’re home.” (Bryce) Pope feels his team will be fixed on the task at hand.
“Every game in the playoffs is super tough and, like I said, we knew Poway was a good team and we’re really happy to have the win,” said Pope. “We can’t use it as an excuse but hadn’t played a game in eight-or-nine days.
“We had some good practices but practices aren’t the same as games. We’ll be back and I think we’ll be ready to play a really good game against Mission Bay.”
A LOOK AT OTHER NORTH COAST CIF HOOPS SURVIVORS
Torrey Pines will be the lone local representative in the boys’ final four but the North Coast owns half of the remaining bracket in the girls’ Open Division which also resumes Wednesday night. Top-seeded Catholic Catholic, under Head Coach Jackie Turpin, romped past Bonita Vista in the quarterfinals, building a 36-35 halftime lead and then blitzing the Barons, 23-2, in the third. Led by freshman Isuneh Brady, who had 25 points and 18 rebounds in the quarterfinal win, the Dons now tackle Christian. Coach Chris Kroesch’s third-seeded Mission Hills side was equally impressive, getting 25 points and 12 boards from senior Kathryn Neff while overpowering Mater Dei Catholic, 73-45. They tee it up against La Jolla Country Day with a trip to the finals at stake.
“We’re very similar to LJCD in that we’re both 19-10, have pretty much the exact strength of schedule and both prepared ourselves by playing a tough schedule,” said Kroesch, whose Grizzlies have won four CIF titles in the last five years and were runners-up last winter. “Every year, you want to be peaking at playoff time so you take your lumps early and learn.
“We’ve improved across-the-board and the team we have now would beat the early season version of our team by 20. We’re playing well and our girls will be focused and dialed-in against La Jolla Country Day.”
In Division I, the North Coast boasts the top seed in both the boys’ and girls’ divisions. On the boys’ side, it’s Coach Will Cunningham’s Cathedral Catholic crew, which defeated eighth-seeded Christian, 66-56 in the quarterfinals after rolling over Canyon Crest in round one. The 21-9 Dons lost 6-of-7 in a testing mid-season stint but are now healthy and finished the regular season strong. They also face La Jolla Country Day.
“For us it’s going to be about executing on the offensive end, rebounding on the defensive side and taking care of the ball,” said Cunningham. “La Jolla Country Day has Ryan Langborg, one of the better scorers in the section, and are always well-coached. They’ve been inside the Open rankings most of the year so I expect a tough game.”
On the girls’ side, No. 1 seed La Costa Canyon, a perennial playoff presence, whose late season surge left them just outside the Open Division bracket, knocked off all three of its potential remaining opponents during the regular season and would seem to be the logical favorite to grab its first CIF banner since 2013. First-year Coach Caitlin Eichlin is another who is seeing a rugged first month or two generating late-season magic.
“We’ve been living by the mantra ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,’ “ said Eichlin. “It was tough early in the season but it made us much closer and eventually made us a better team.
“You’d always like to reach the Open Division, but our players are so excited and are bringing incredible energy to every practice. This is a good spot for us right now and we know we still have room to improve.” With impressive wins over West Hills and Rancho Bernardo in the books, the Mavericks hook up with fifth-seeded Serra in Tuesday’s semi-finals.
On the other side of the bracket is league rival San Marcos. Decimated by injuries, Coach Roger DiCarlo’s second-seeded outfit has thrown caution to the wind in CIF play, resulting in victories over Lincoln and Imperial as well as a looming match-up against third-seeded Poway.
“We have three starters out for the season and another who hasn’t played a game,” said DiCarlo. “When Sarah Cloutier went down right before league, we started playing a style that wasn’t us—but we decided that if we’re going to lose, we’re going to lose fighting.
“We’ve got a bunch of young kids up from JV who are just staying focused and ready for the next game and a group of seniors who don’t want to see the end of their careers—it’s a dangerous combination.”
In Division II, it’s all about Carlsbad. Coach Sam Eshelman’s third-seed boys squad figured to be in the championship mix all along and have played the part. They stopped Mt. Miguel, 69-61, in the quarterfinals with Brogan Pietrocini and Caleb Nelson chalking up 13 points apiece. The Lancers have an interesting foe in the form of No. 15 seed Bonita Vista which took out second-seeded Westview and then Escondido to reach Carlsbad.
“In the playoffs, you look at the match up and not the seeds—Bonita Vista is a young team but they can really play and they have three excellent perimeter scorers who can dictate tempo,” said Eshelman, whose charges have a win over Torrey Pines on their resume. “And dictating tempo is where this game will be won and lost.
“This is definitely the best team we’ve had since I’ve been head coach and maybe the best Carlsbad team since 2012—I feel when we’re playing our best, we’re talented enough to compete against anyone.”
It’s been a rollercoaster season for Coach Donna Huhn’s young Carlsbad girls’ team but after surviving a fourth place finish in the rough Avocado West League, the Lancers have found their footing and now stand just two wins shy of a CIF D-II crown. In last week’s quarterfinals, Carlsbad got 26 points from 6-foot-1 Ari Pagan, the team’s lone senior starter, and nine more from sophomore guard Kaylie Ronan in a 15-pt. road triumph over Avocado East champion Vista. The fifth-seeded Lancers get an even bigger challenge Wednesday when they tangle with No. 1-seeded El Camino. Expect Huhn’s band to head into the Wildcats’ gym with resolve.
“It’s been a battle all season and this is just what we are,” said Huhn. “We get punched in the stomach and get back up. In our conference, playing teams like Mission Hills and La Costa Canyon, you get punched. We’re used to it—day-in and day-out, we’ve felt that pressure and the experience was only helping us against a team like Vista.
“We’re playing extremely well right now. It’s survive and advance in this kind of tournament and our girls don’t want to go home.”
Another team that knows about surviving and advancing is San Dieguito, whose girls won their first-ever CIF hoops title last year, prevailing in D-IV. Coach Aubree Smithey’s Mustangs changed leagues from Avo West to Avo East (they finished third) and stepped up to D-III without missing a beat. SDA, seeded second, slugged Valley Center in round one and slipped by Hilltop in the quarterfinals with sophomore guard Toni Ballante, a reserve most of the year, pacing the team in scoring both nights with 13 and 12 points respectively. The Mustangs will host third seed Calvin Christian Tuesday to keep their back-to-back championship hopes alive.
“We’re better than last year,” says Smithey matter-of-factly. “We’re basically the same team plus three new kids, one, freshman point guard Ruby Willard, who has played a key role. In general, we’ve got better depth which has resulted in more balanced scoring, which is good.” Injuries, illness and even a power outage limited SDA’s practice opportunities in front of the Hilltop game but even that fit into the Mustangs’ standard operating procedure.
“Things keep happening, but we don’t let it bother us,” continued Smithey. “Our mantra is ‘no excuses.’ We’ve been getting better. If we stick to our game plan and can put together a solid 32 minutes, I like our chances.”