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By Zach Cavanagh
SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO – The CIF-SS Division 1 semifinal at JSerra High School on Friday night was a game of attrition.
Neither the fourth-seeded Lions nor visiting top-seeded Windward of Los Angeles let the other get too far away from the other. Neither got carried away with the task at hand. Neither lost their focus.
JSerra and Windward went blow-for-blow for three and a half quarters, and then in this game of attrition, it was the physical Wildcats that wore down the Lions to escape and advance.
JSerra led by as many as seven points in the third quarter, but Windward kept pace and dominated the paint on both sides of the floor in the fourth quarter to beat the Lions, 67-61, and move on to the CIF-SS Division 1 championship game.
“We didn’t have the physicality to match them (down low),” JSerra coach Keith Wilkinson said. “Credit their defense for protecting the paint. We had some open shots that Max Bowman hit in the second half that missed in the first half. We had to take those because they packed the paint in.”
As a CIF-SS Division 1 semifinalist, JSerra qualified for the CIF State Regional playoffs. The Lions will learn their draw on March 1 and open play on March 3.
“We’ll look forward to that opportunity,” Wilkinson said. “It’s a long time until we play. I’m really glad this group of seniors isn’t done. Probably one of the best to play at JSerra.”
Friday’s game was JSerra’s first trip to the CIF-SS semifnals since the Lion’s 2014 Division 4AA championship.
Bowman, a junior, led JSerra (24-8) with 18 points and three 3-pointers, all three in the fourth quarter to match 3-pointers made by Windward (25-7).
Sophomore Alpha Chibambe was electric for JSerra at times with 13 points, including a game-opening alley-oop dunk.
Senior Justin Williams put the game on his shoulders late as he tried to propel JSerra to a victory, but Williams couldn’t add to his 10-point total.
“He doesn’t want the season to end,” Wilkinson said of Williams. “He’s been tremendous down the stretch. He loves JSerra, he loves his teammates, he loves being a part of it. He’s willed us to a lot of wins down the stretch.”
Utah-bound senior Ian Martinez was held to only five points, all in the first half. Windward’s size and length in a box-and-one defense denied Martinez his opportunities to drive to the hoop.
“He’s a great teammate, and always makes the right play,” Wilkinson said of Martinez. “They took him out of it, but he did a good job of getting his teammates involved.”
JSerra and Windward played nearly stride for stride from start to finish.
The Wildcats led 12-11 after the first quarter, and despite JSerra hitting a couple 3-pointers in the second quarter for a five-point lead, Windward held close for a two-point JSerra lead at halftime, 28-26.
Windward found its 3-point stroke early in the third quarter, but JSerra orchestrated some efficient play for a seven-point lead. That didn’t last long as Windward charged back to a one-point deficit at the end of the third quarter, 42-41.
Windward lit up from beyond the arc once again early in the fourth to take a lead they would never relinquish. Senior Devin Tillis and sophomore Dylan Andrews took over as JSerra couldn’t plug up the driving lanes to the basket and both Wildcats knocked down any open shot they had.
Tillis led the game with 23 points, and Andrews put up 13 points. Both scored nine points each in the fourth quarter.
In a cleanly played game, JSerra racked up intentional fouls late to force free throws for Windward, but the Lions still couldn’t break through the Wildcat defense as Windward held on to the six-point win.
Zach Cavanagh is the sports editor for Picket Fence Media. Zach is a California Journalism Award winner and has covered sports in Orange County since 2013. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @ZachCav and follow our sports coverage on Twitter @SouthOCSports. Email at email@example.com.