Long Beach Poly’s boys’ basketball players and coaches read the reports that Millikan had clinched a share of the Moore League championship thanks to the Jackrabbits’ surprising losses to Compton and Lakewood last week. It was clear from their reaction after Thursday night’s league championship clash with the Rams that they took it personally. Poly defeated the Rams, 80-68, to force a co-championship, making it 11 in a row for the Jackrabbits.
“People have been printing stuff, they’re league champions, well they didn’t beat us,” said Poly coach Shelton Diggs. “We beat them twice, we beat them handily. We’re not worried about Millikan. I appreciate the motivation from everyone that called them champions.”
The Rams went 0-2 against Poly but because of the Jackrabbits’ two losses last week, the teams finish tied atop the league standings. Millikan coach Nate Berger said that despite the tie, it was a hollow result for Millikan.
“It’s only a tie by a technicality,” he said. “We lost to them twice, that shouldn’t sit well with us.”
The game was worthy of its title tilt billing, with a sold-out crowd and the league’s top two scorers on the floor in Poly’s Peyton Watson and Millikan’s Rob Diaz.
In the end it was Watson and the Jackrabbits who put their stamp on the game. The junior finished with 28 points, 11 rebounds, three blocks, and two highlight-reel dunks.
“We weren’t going to lose the title,” said Watson. “That wasn’t an option. Coach Shell told me before the game if we lost tonight I wouldn’t be MVP of the Moore League. I told myself when I was in 8th grade that I wanted to be the MVP of this league in my city. I had fun tonight. I love going into other people’s gyms and beating them.”
The Jackrabbits took a 6-1 lead and never trailed, although Millikan hung in mostly thanks to big plays from Myles Carmon. Diaz scored 19 points to lead the Rams, but was frustrated throughout most of the game by tight ball pressure from a rotating group of Jackrabbits.
The other big story was the emergence of Poly big man Rafael Cruz, who was playing in just his second game of the season but scored 16 points, including 14 in the first half. Cruz was needed with Solomon Jones and his brother Ben having left the team prior to the final week of the season (“You’d have to ask the Joneses why they aren’t on the team anymore,” said Diggs).
It wasn’t easy for Cruz to stay prepared while waiting to be eligible to play, but he said Kobe Bryant served as his inspiration.
“It was Mamba mentality,” he said. “I had the same injury as him, he was one of my favorite players. I studied his book, I watched all his videos. I just had to make sure I was ready for my opportunity when it came.”
For Millikan, Berger said it’s important his team turn the page and ready for the playoffs.
“We were rattled by the moment,” he said. “It took us a while to settle in. They were ready to play from the beginning.”
Playoff brackets will be released on Sunday.