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SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO – JSerra boys basketball was arguably the hottest team in Orange County down the stretch of the regular season, and while the hot hands of the Rolling Hills Prep backcourt threatened to cool off the Lions, the No. 4 seed grinded to survive on Friday, Feb. 10.
Despite nothing but 3-pointers from Rolling Hills Prep in the first half, JSerra slowly but surely tied the game up at haltime, and spurred on by their defense and board play in the second half, Aidan Fowler scored 10 of his game-high 23 points in the fourth quarter to help the Lions outlast the Huskies, 48-45, in the CIF-SS Division 1 second round.
JSerra (22-8) advances to the quarterfinals and will travel to Canyon of Anaheim on Tuesday, Feb. 14.
“Guys on their team just stepped up,” JSerra coach Keith Wilkinson said of Rolling Hills Prep. “No. 10 (Blake Yamada, 12 points, four 3-poitners) and No. 2 (Mateo Trujillo, 15 points, four 3-pointers) hit some unbelievable threes. They just shot the lights out. They’re always solid. It was a grind out game. Our offense wasn’t great, but it’s our defense that carries us when we don’t shoot it well. Fortunately, we got that big stop at the end.”
In the first half, Rolling Hills Prep (23-6) hit eight 3-pointers and three free throws, but the Huskies didn’t make a simple two-point bucket until the third quarter, where they hit no threes and scored six points. Rolling Hills Prep sank another four 3-pointers in the fourth quarter, but again didn’t make as single two-point basket and couldn’t nail a tying or go-ahead shot.
The Huskies’ hot start kept JSerra behind until 1:27 left in the first half, when the Lions finally tied the game after chipping away and never trailed again.
Part of that was the play of the junior Fowler, who in addition to his scoring surge in the fourth quarter also forced three steals.
“He’s our leader. He’s our rock. He competes his ass off,” Wilkinson said. “Obviously, he scores for us, but what he doesn’t get enough credit for is he picks up full court, turns and works guys and makes the other team’s point guard’s night a living hell. He just wears people down.”
JSerra’s defensive effort was also paced by a gritty effort from senior guard Everett Bryson, who pulled down seven rebounds and forced three steals to go along with two blocks, three assists and four points.
“Our leading rebounder, our best defender,” Wilkinson said of Bryson. “Last year, before he tore his ACL and we went on our run, he shut down every one of their best players every single night. He’s only nine-and-a-half, close to 10 months post-ACL surgery, which is so fast to come back and play basketball. He’s been tremendous.”
JSerra’s hot streak of eight straight wins, including its final four Trinity League games, has come together as the Lions, like Bryson, got healthier.
Sebastian Rancik, a 6-foot-9 forward who plays for the Slovakian U18 national team and was recently offered by UCLA, sparked this run by coming back from injury, and Rancik scored 14 points and pulled in six rebounds on Friday. The Lions are close to seeing the return of starting center Jake Stafford.
“I think our confidence is big time right now,” Fowler said. “We’ve just got to keep grinding and get to the ‘chip.”
Fowler said the Lions are on a “revenge tour” in the Division 1 playoffs, after JSerra advanced to the Division 1 Final last year and lost on its home floor.
JSerra’s path continues at Canyon of Anaheim on Tuesday. After a first-round bye, the Comanches defeated Crossroads, 73-64, in the first round on Friday.
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