“A lot of people say we’re at a disadvantage because of our size, but I think it’s an advantage because of the way we play defense,” said Long Beach Poly junior Malik Salahuddin after the Jackrabbits’ 69-53 win over El Camino Real in the first round of the CIF State Division 1 playoffs.
It’s hard to disagree with him. Poly’s perimeter pressure forced the Conquistadors into 21 turnovers on Wednesday night, with 14 of those turning into scoring opportunities for the Jackrabbits. Salahuddin had six steals himself and finished with a game-high 26 points.
The junior’s development into a reliable scoring option has been one of the key’s to Poly’s late-season success, as they made the CIF-SS Division 1 semifinals and are hoping to make a run in the state bracket as well.
“I think everyone knew what we had in Darryl (Polk) and Jesse (Galloway),” said Poly coach Shelton Diggs. “To have Malik and Justin Rene and Giordan Williams get going, now when teams focus on Darryl and Jesse those other guys are hard to slow down.”
Poly played Wednesday’s game at a breakneck pace, even after securing a big lead. They won a back-and-forth first quarter on a buzzer-beating 3-pointer from Williams, which put the Jackrabbits up 16-15 after eight minutes.
The second and third quarters were dominated by Poly’s guards, as they held the Conquistadors to just nine points in each quarter, frustrating them by pressuring the dribble and jumping into passing lanes.
In the fourth quarter El Camino Real cut a double-digit Poly lead to just eight points, but Poly responded with a 7-0 run as Rene scored five points and Salahuddin had a steal-and-score. Salahuddin acknowledged that when the season started he was comfortable being used more as a defensive specialist.
“When I transferred in I knew I could play defense with anyone, but I wanted to fit in offensively and not push things,” he said.
He and the rest of the Jackrabbits pushed the issue in a big way on Wednesday, and they’ll play in the second round of the state playoffs this Saturday as a result. Poly will visit St. John Bosco at 6 p.m.