Long Beach Poly boys’ basketball has been looking to build chemistry and rely on a new leader since McDonald’s All-American Peyton Watson opted out of the rest of this season, but the Jackrabbits found both on Friday night at Ron Palmer Pavilion.
Poly junior, and Peyton’s brother, Christian Watson sparked a 22-4 run in the second half to put visiting Village Christian away 63-48 in the second round of the CIF Southern Section Division 2 AA playoffs.
“We came out flat in the first half,” Watson said. “We went back to the locker room and coach kind of got in us. He told that this is not how we want to end our season, so we came out here fighting.”
Watson scored 11 of his game-high 22 points in the third quarter while the Poly defense held Village Christian to just a pair of free throws in the eight-minute stretch. The Jackrabbits turned a 35-27 halftime deficit into a 40-37 lead headed into the fourth quarter.
“In the first half our defensive intensity wasn’t where it needed to be and they were able to do whatever they wanted,” Poly coach Shelton Diggs said. “In the second half we took them out of the stuff they wanted to do. And we finally made some shots.”
Poly forwards Jalen Pitre and Rafael Cruz each chipped in 13 points while locking down the paint on the defensive end. It was the stops and turnovers in the second half that got Watson and the other Jackrabbit guards into the open floor.
“It just came down to getting stops and being aggressive,” Watson said. “We’re too big so when we push it’s going to be a problem for any team.”
Village Christian (13-8) took an early lead thanks to knocking down open shots and forcing a handful of turnovers in the first quarter. The visitors led 17-13 headed into the second quarter, and led by as many as nine points before halftime. Junior Deshawn Warren scored a team-high 12 points for Village Christian.
“It was more just us not running our stuff and trying to be heroes and erase the deficit with one shot,” Diggs said. “Once we started to run our plays we were a lot better.”
Watson attacked the rim and drained a 3-pointer at the start of the third quarter to take hold of the proceedings. Minutes later he dished it off to Pitre for a dunk to give the Jackrabbits the lead. Diggs said Watson is slowly becoming the leader his team needs.
“Peyton was our leader and with him not playing you can’t just give someone that leadership role,” he said. “You have to earn it. (Christian) is slowly starting to earn it piece by piece.”
“In the third quarter I kind of figured out how they were covering stuff and it opened up,” said Watson, who added that he wants the role of leader. “It’s just being a vocal leader and holding people accountable and making sure I’m doing the right thing so I’m able to talk. It’s leading by example.”
Poly (12-3) is set to visit Orange Lutheran in the quarterfinals on Tuesday, and Diggs said his team is better off because they had to battle with Village Christian.
“We haven’t had a lot of close games this year,” he said. “We either got blew out or we were blowing people out so it was good to have a closer game so we can get on guys about shots and stuff like that. We’ve got a lot to work on.”
“If we come out like we did in the third and fourth (quarters) I don’t think any team can beat us,” Watson added.
Village Christian, the No. 2 team out of the Olympic League, reached the Division 3 A quarterfinals last season.
Lakewood 71, Eastside 61
The Lancers took an early lead and rolled to a second-round win at home in Division 3 AA, so they’ll visit Aquinas for the quarterfinals on Tuesday.
Fountain Valley 60, Compton 56
Valley Christian 61, Wilson 51
Windward 54, St. Anthony 49