ALL BALL: Mira Costa basketball loses tough game, faces Redondo next

Mira Costa’s Winslow Smith and Redondo’s Milaan Gordon battle beneath the basket last week during Redondo’s win. The two meet again next week in a game that could determine the league title. Photo by Ray Vidal

 

By Paul Teetor           

Two points, two (allegedly) clean blocks and 12 seconds.

That’s how close the Mira Costa boys basketball team came to gaining a first-place tie with Culver City in a Bay League showdown Friday night.

In the final 12 seconds, the Mustangs had 3 chances to tie or win the game and couldn’t cash in on any of them. But they walked off the Culver City High School court with their heads held high after scrapping their way back from a 9-point third-quarter deficit only to lose in the last 12 seconds by a score of 42-40.

And what a memorable final 12 seconds it was.

After Culver City broke a 40-40 tie with a tip-in off a missed jump shot, the Mustangs called a time-out and set up a play for their sophomore star, 6-foot-1 point guard Will Householter, to drive to the hoop for a two-point shot.

Householter, as he had all night, had to fight off multiple hands and arms clutching and grabbing at him as he drove, to the point that he appeared to be blatantly fouled as the ball was knocked from his grasp and out of bounds. But there was no foul call and it was ruled Mustangs’ ball with six seconds left.

One of the quirks of the Centaurs’ ancient gym is that the baseline is literally one foot behind the basket, leaving virtually no room to throw the ball in and compressing the action around the basket. So it was a near-miracle that the Mustangs were able to get the ball to their go-to guy with the entire Culver City team trying to funnel the ball to anyone else but Householter.

The Mustangs called another play for Householter to curl around the perimeter and drive right to left, a smart call for the left-handed player. He got the ball, drove hard left, and went up strong to finish on the left side of the rim.

But as he attempted to bank in the lay-up with his left-hand and protect his body with his right hand, three pairs of arms came around his body to swat the shot as bodies collided and four players – Householter plus three Centaurs — crashed into the wall directly behind the basket.

Again, no call. Contact all over Householter’s body that left him writhing on the floor, but no call. Now there were only four seconds left on the clock and the tiny, half-full gym was alive with shouted instructions, frantic warnings and loud cheering coming from all sides.              

As the clock ticked down the five seconds and the Mustangs had to inbound the ball, Culver City formed a wall around the basket and prevented Householter from getting the ball. Finally Costa did manage to inbound it to shooting guard Nick Lundy deep in the left-hand corner, just past the three-point line. But as Lundy went up for what could have been the game-winning shot three players closed out on him and one got a hand on the ball. Again, there appeared to be plenty of contact with Lundy’s lower body, but again there was no call and the buzzer blared on a bitter Mustang defeat that is likely to impact their season in a huge way.

Costa Head Coach Neal Perlmutter declined to criticize the referees over the lack of calls in the last 12 seconds. “It was very physical. The refs let them play,” he said. “Ultimately, we needed to be a tougher team.”   

A win would have put them in a tie for first place in the Bay League with Culver City, each with 4-2 league records. Instead they fell to 3-3 in the league and 6-6 overall while Culver City remained in first place with a 5-1 league record.

The near-miss did provide one bright spot for the Mustangs: they now have a certifiable second star in junior forward Cole Slusser to go along with Householter, who made first team all Bay League last year and appears on track to do it again. The 6-foot-4 Slusser has clearly made the jump from junior varsity starter last season to varsity star this season. He is now a confident player willing to shoot the ball in any sort of clutch situation. And he can score at all three levels: from three-point range, from mid-range with 12–15-foot jumpers, and at the basket finishing a power drive.

“He’s a quiet star, he lets his game do all the talking,” Perlmutter said. “His emergence has given us a third scoring threat to go along with Will and Luke Sevier.”

Slusser led the Mustangs in scoring Friday night with 15 points, and played a huge part in digging Costa out from a 9-point deficit early in the third quarter when they trailed 35-26. In such a low-scoring game, that deficit appeared insurmountable until it wasn’t.

The comeback started when Slusser drilled a 10-foot baseline jumper to cut the lead to 35-28. Power forward Luke Stamp fought for a rebound, got fouled and hit one of his two foul shots to give his team some hope as they trailed 35-29 at the end of the third quarter.

The comeback continued as slick point guard Christian Huang, who handled the ball much of the game to free up Householter to play off the ball, penetrated the Centaurs’ fierce interior defense and found forward Jesse Waller with a nice pass for an easy 5-footer. 

Next Householter found a cutting Slusser for a layup as he got fouled. Slusser hit the and-one foul shot to trim the lead to 35-34.

As it had all game, Culver responded by dominating the boards with superior height and athleticism and built the lead back up to 40-36. The ball continued to find Slusser, who drove hard and got fouled again. He hit both foul shots to pull within 40-38. A few seconds later he did it again, drawing another foul and calmly drilling two foul shots to tie it at 40-40 with 1:58 left.

With both defenses dug in and scratching and clawing at the ball, there was no more scoring until Culver City pulled ahead 42-40 on a tip-in. That set the stage for the final, frantic 12 seconds that ended in bitter disappointment for the Mustangs.                                           

Slusser led the way with 15 points and 3 rebounds, while Householter, center Luke Siever and Waller all chipped in with 6 points apiece. Householter filled out the stat sheet with 6 rebounds, 3 steals and 2 blocks. In an extremely physical game, he kept getting knocked down and coming back stronger than ever. The two shots he had blocked late in the game could just as easily have been called fouls and might have changed the game’s outcome, but it was not to be.

Meanwhile in the early game the Mira Costa girls team kept its Bay League championship hopes alive with a 42-32 win over Culver. Their star sophomore guard, Maile Nakaji, led the way with 10 points, followed by power forward Bella Blum with 9 points.

“I think we played well overall but especially on defense,” Coach John Lapham said.

The win left the Mustangs with a 5-1 Bay League record and 10-4 overall. Redondo is still in first place in the league at 6-0 after they beat the Mustangs last week.        

“It was a tough loss to our rival,” Lapham said. “We were down by just 3 or 4 points with five minutes left and we ran out of gas. Their size and talent just overwhelmed us.” 

Redondo’s star senior, 6-foot-1 Calli Stokes, is headed to nationally ranked Gonzaga next year. She dominated the Mustangs with 23 points and 12 rebounds.

The Mustangs will get another chance to beat Redondo next week when they travel to meet the Sea Hawks in their home gym. Assuming both teams do not lose before that game, it will give the Mustangs a chance to knock them off and claim a share of the Bay League championship.

“To beat them, we will have to shoot better and handle the ball better,” Lapham said.

Regardless of what happens with Redondo or who wins the league championship, he said, the season is already a success. 

“Just the fact we have a season after all these kids went through with the pandemic is a great thing,” he said. “The kids are playing as hard as they can. At this point they really appreciate the fact that there are games for them to play.”                         

The Lakers greatly reduced expectations 

When the Lakers started their season three days before Christmas, they had one goal and one goal only: to repeat the 2019-2020 NBA championship that broke their 10-year title drought.

And this time to have a real championship celebration, complete with packed-house home games and of course the delirious, all-day-and-all-night parade they didn’t get to have during the pandemic shortened season that ended in a Florida bubble.

Now? 

Now their goal is just to make the playoffs. And to have a healthy LeBron James back off the injured list and ready to re-join Anthony Davis, who has been back for the last week and is starting to play like an All-Star again.

After that they can worry about the long, hard slog to a title repeat.

That’s the Lakers sad state as they enter the last week of the regular season. Great expectations have become greatly reduced expectations.

Currently, the Lakers sit in 7th place in the powerhouse Western Division. In previous years that would have meant they had to play the second-place team in the first round, which at this point would be Phoenix, which has an all-star backcourt in Chris Paul and Devin Booker. backed up by the best young 7-footer in the league, DeAndre Ayton, and a whole roster of talented role players.

But under the new play-in format for the 7-10 teams that the NBA adopted this year, the Lakers are in a precarious position where a couple of play-in losses would mean they don’t get into the playoffs at all.

According to the new play-in rules, the 7th place and 8th place teams will play each other on May 18 while the 9th place team plays the 10th place team. That means that, barring a change in the standings, the Lakers will have to play a single game next Tuesday night against the always-dangerous Golden State Warriors, whose star Stephen Curry has been the hottest player in the league for the past month.

Whoever wins that game will then be slotted into the playoffs as the 7th seed, who will probably have to play the Phoenix Suns in a best 4-out-of-7 first round series.

The loser of that 7 vs. 8 game will then have to play the winner of the 9 vs. 10 game – currently Memphis and San Antonio — for the 8th seed.  The winner of that game gets the 8th seed in the playoffs and the right to play the top seed, most likely Utah. The loser goes home to join the loser of the 9/10 game.

Got it?

In other words, if the Lakers stay in 7th place, which is very likely, and then lose the 7/8 game, they would have to beat the winner of the 9/10 game just to even get into the playoffs, where they would have to play top-seeded Utah.

Put even more simply: if the Lakers lose their first two play-in games they are done for the season. In a league that’s so competitive any team can beat any other team on any given night, that’s how close the Lakers are to elimination without even getting a shot at the real playoffs.

This crazy new format, which the league adopted for this season only with no guarantee it will be brought back next season, is already being criticized for devaluing the 72-game regular season even more than it already was. While most players grumble about it under their breath, LeBron James came right out and said what most of them are thinking: “Whoever came up with this sh… needs to be fired.”

Amen.

Contact: teetor.paul@gmail.com. Follow: @paulteetor. ER

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Written by: Paul Teetor

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