The Long Beach Poly girls’ basketball team made history Monday night in its dominant win over Fairmont Prep in the CIF Southern Section Division 1 semifinals. With the Jackrabbits’ 66-41 win, they’ll now host the CIF-SS championship game in the Ron Palmer Pavilion Thursday night against Esperanza–the first time the gym has played host to a title game.
“First time in school history,” said Poly coach Carl Buggs. “This is a COVID year, everything about this whole year is crazy. I’m just thinking about how far we’ve come from that 50-point loss to Mater Dei six weeks ago, the girls have really worked hard and stepped up…that’s probably the proudest that I am of them. They’re playing like seniors, with passion, like every game is their last game. They don’t want to be that senior group that played four years and didn’t win some type of championship.”
The Jackrabbits have won six CIF-SS championships and six CIF State championships, but the last title came in 2017, meaning none of the current players got a taste of it. If they were to graduate without a title, they’d be the first senior class in 20 years to do so, something the players all said was on their mind before the game Monday.
“We know the legacy of the school and we try to uphold that as well,” said Lily Buggs (no relation to Carl), who led the team with 19 points and 10 rebounds in the win. “We know the history, although we haven’t won a championship ourselves–that’s something we’re striving for.”
That striving has taken the Jackrabbits from a team that started the year a few months ago with four players who had real varsity experience and that was blown out by Mater Dei, to a team that absolutely dominated a Division 1 semifinal, showcasing how far they’ve come this season. Poly was in control from the jump thanks to dominant defensive effort, and they led 14-8 after the first quarter, 34-13 at halftime, and 48-18 after three quarters.
The Jackrabbits gave up their first field goal of the second quarter with 2:45 left, and their first field goal of the third quarter on a buzzer-beater. Junior Nala Williams chipped in 17 points, but she also had five seals, and was part of an on-ball pressure effort that clearly got under Fairmont Prep’s skin in the game.
“In order to beat them, you have to withstand the punches, withstand their momentum, withstand the runs, and we weren’t able to do that,” said Fairmont Prep coach Sarah Brown. “Usually we are, we usually bounce back and we weren’t able to. I give credit to them.”
Buggs had a ferocious second quarter with 14 of her game-high 19 points, as she helped key a 14-0 start to the quarter for the Jackrabbits, which effectively ended the game by putting them up 28-8.
Senior Kalaya Buggs (Carl and assistant coach Lakeisha Buggs’ daughter) had a typically stat-filling night, running point and managing a calm and patient halfcourt offense that knew exactly what shots each player was capable of making, a far cry from how Poly started the season. Buggs finished with 11 points, six rebounds, and five assists. As someone who has grown up in Poly’s gym from the time she was an infant, and someone who’s watched her parents rewrite the statewide record books with championship after championship, she said this week’s games have been on her mind for a long time.
“It’s honestly all that’s been on my mind,” she said. “I just want to win and make them proud. This is my last year, so obviously winning a championship is a big goal of mine. But yeah, he’s been doing this for so long, and he’s been watching me grow up here. It’s just my dream to make him proud.”
She’s not the only one who’s been dreaming and working to earn a spot in Thursday’s championship game, though. What’s been striking all postseason is how far the team has come. The core four of the two Buggses, Williams, and Simone Morris (nine points) came into the season with plenty of experience, but senior Khalei Gentle has been a star as a role player this playoffs.
Gentle had four points, six rebounds, an assist, a steal, and a block in the game, and played absolutely terrific defense in the post, flustering her opponent and bringing a hard-edged mentality.
“She has come a long way, and I think you can see how much it means to her,” said Buggs.
The Jackrabbits will host Esperanza Thursday at 7 p.m. in the CIF-SS Division 1 championship game.
PHOTOS: Long Beach Poly vs. Fairmont Prep, Girls’ Basketball