A historic year produced a historic championship. The Long Beach Poly girls’ basketball team had won six CIF Southern Section titles and six CIF State titles coming into Thursday night’s CIF-SS Division 1 championship against Esperanza, but they’d never done it at home. That special accomplishment came as the result of an unbelievable COVID year that started with coaches and players questioning whether they’d have a season at all, and culminated Thursday in a dominant 80-52 win over Esperanza in the Ron Palmer Pavilion.
Asked if he saw this result coming back when the team began practicing a few months ago in the same gym they played in Thursday, longtime Poly coach Carl Buggs laughed. “You know, in the beginning I really didn’t know,” he said. “All I knew was to try to get us as ready we can be, every day, for every game.”
The Jackrabbits went on an epic, dominant tear through the Division 1 bracket as the top seed, taking a first round bye then beating Peninsula by 23 points, Bishop Montgomery by 22 points, Fairmont Prep by 25 points, and finally Esperanza by 28 points.
The championship win came in large part thanks to the efforts of Buggs’ daughter, Kalaya Buggs, who had the game of her life at the exact right time. She hit seven 3-pointers to record a game-high 25 points, 11 rebounds, four assists, and two steals. The seven 3s breaks a school record set by Kalaya’s older sister, Cynthia, who was courtside keeping the official scorebook for the game.
“My sister and I made a goal list when I was younger and winning a CIF championship was on that list,” said Kalaya. “Being able to achieve that in our home gym is something very special, especially with my parents coaching.”
Her shot had been off throughout most of the playoffs, with teammates Nala Williams and Lily Buggs (no relation) both carrying the scoring load. At a practice on Wednesday, Poly coaches and teammates teased Kalaya by calling her Paul George, the Clippers All-Star who is having a historically poor shooting performance these playoffs.
Coach Buggs, a notoriously detailed gamplanner who never stops worrying until a game is over, said that he was feeling perfectly calm after watching his daughter warm up before Thursday’s championship.
“When she was warming up I saw a look on her face, a calmness, a confidence,” said Buggs. “Like, ‘We got this.’ I didn’t have to ask her or whatever, I just saw something in her eyes that I haven’t seen in four years. I said, ‘You know what, it’s going to be alright.’ She just had this aura tonight like, ‘We’re good, we’re good.’ And I’m just happy, I’m so happy and proud for her and for all of the team.”
The game was over pretty quickly thanks to an incredible team effort from Poly. The Jackrabbits led 22-8 after the first quarter thanks to seven forced turnovers and an aggressive offensive effort from Buggs, who helped Poly out to an 18-6 lead. The Jackrabbits poured it on in the second quarter, scoring another 23 points to take a 45-19 lead on Simone Morris’ buzzer-beater.
Buggs kept raining 3-pointers, hitting her first four and going 7/12 on the night from distance. Poly would lead 68-33 late in the third quarter, and coach Buggs was able to take his starters out of the game with more than two minutes left, letting each of them hear a round of applause.
Poly went 14/14 from the free-throw line and played smothering defense for the entire game. Buggs’ 25 points were backed up by 19 points and 11 rebounds from Lily Buggs, 10 points from Morris, and 11 points from sophomore Skylar Mills, who gave Poly great bench minutes with starting center Khalei Gentle sitting with foul trouble.
Championships aren’t new at Poly, as Thursday’s marked the 123rd CIF-SS championship in school history, the most of any school. But few titles have come at the end of such a winding road. The Poly team lost to Mater Dei by 53 points on May 1, and a few days later had to enter a 10-day quarantine after hearing that a Mater Dei player had tested positive for COVID-19.
No Jackrabbits tested positive, but Poly found themselves unable to practice or workout for more than a week, having to cancel valuable nonleague games as well.
Since that loss, the Jackrabbits have won eight in a row, with a 22-point win over Bishop Montgomery in the quarterfinals their closest contest.
“That loss to Mater Dei paved the way for us,” said Buggs. “That let us know that we weren’t ready for anything yet. So it was let’s get in the gym, and let’s get to work. The girls took it to heart. We kept talking about the big picture–keep getting better each day, keep building confidence.”
The win made it a family affair for many of the team’s players. For Kalaya, she got to celebrate on the floor with her parents, with her extended family there cheering on she and her parents, coaches Carl and Lakeisha. During the celebration, Carl found Kalaya and brought her in for an extended hug as the fans cheered.
“I was just hoping I wouldn’t cry, I didn’t want to start crying in front of everyone,” said Kalaya. “It was really, really fun.”
The game had family stakes for Williams and Lily Buggs as well, since they both had older siblings who won championships at Poly. Williams’ older brother, Zafir, won a title with the boys’ team while Lily’s older brother Drew and older sister Chloe both have basketball championships for the Jackrabbits under their belt.
“I hear it a lot, I hear it a lot, in fact I heard it just this morning,” said Lily with a laugh. “How I needed to pull through tonight if I wanted to be like them. It motivated me, I wanted to get it done. Everybody knows the legacy of Poly and how well we typically do. But my senior class hadn’t won a championship and we would have been the first ones in 20 years to graduate without doing that–we didn’t want that, we wanted to leave our own legacy.”
They certainly did that, winning a championship in the same gym where they’ll hang the banner commemorating it.
Poly (15-2) isn’t done yet, either, as they will play in next week’s CIF State SoCal Regional playoffs, a strange state playoffs that will end without a real state championship since Northern California isn’t participating.
“I’m not sure why we’re having the regional but this to me was the championship, the culmination of this whole year,” said Buggs. “And you couldn’t draw it up a better way. You really couldn’t.”