In a year full of unprecedented feats, the Long Beach Poly girls’ basketball team accomplished a lot of “firsts” on Saturday night, a difficult thing to do for that program. They became the first Poly team to play after graduation, with the season extending deep into June (when normally seasons ends in March), and also the first to win a CIF-SS title and a CIF State Regional title at home. The Jackrabbits accomplished the second feat in the Ron Palmer Pavilion on Saturday with a dominant 58-28 win over Rosary, capping a magical and historic 18-2 season.
“That was one of the motivating factors, we used that with the kids,” said Poly coach Carl Buggs. “Every time you’re doing something, it’s history. Winning the CIF championship at Poly for the first time ever, that’s history. Five straight playoff games at home to end the year, that’s history.”
That history came thanks to absolutely dominant defense throughout the postseason, which saw Poly play seven games, only allowing their opponent over 50 once (in an 80-52 win). Poly held their opponent under 50 six times, and under 40 three times. In their three CIF State playoff games they allowed 34, 38 and 28 points. Against Rosary they gave up eight points in the first quarter, four in the second quarter, nine in the third, and seven in the fourth quarter despite the starters sitting the last two minutes.
The win gives them a strange honor; they’re the CIF State Division 1A Southern California Regional champions, but there will be no state championship game for the Jackrabbits because Northern California’s teams opted out of postseason basketball this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“This one was tough, because we’ve never played in a regional not fighting for state,” said Buggs. “It was really challenging to keep the kids motivated to play for a regional championship that we have no banners in here for. For the girls to come through as they did and dominate as much as they did, it says a lot about their character and the kind of girls they are.”
The Jackrabbits’ heart was typified Saturday night by the efforts of senior Simone Morris. The Robert Morris signee defended Rosary’s best player all game, while also leading Poly with 18 points including 3-for-4 shooting from beyond the arc. She didn’t have much time to reflect on her performance or the history her team made this season, because she had a late-night flight from LAX to her college, in Pittsburgh.
“I’m feeling overjoyed,” said Morris via phone from the security line at LAX. “It was definitely a bittersweet moment, everyone was tearing up after the game. We were so happy we did it and we went out with a bang.”
Morris said that in film review it was obvious that Rosary’s strategy was going to be to collapse into the paint to try and keep Lily Buggs from tearing them apart in the midrange, which she knew meant she’d see more opportunities–ones she willingly took.
“I’m usually on the other team’s best player and it takes a lot of work and energy on defense, so it was nice to have a little offensive breakthrough,” she said.
Poly led 17-8 after the first quarter and then 26-12 at halftime, effectively putting the game away with a dominant second-quarter defense effort that saw them give up just two field goals. In addition to Morris’ offensive effort, Kalaya Buggs had 12 points, 10 rebounds, and eight assists, two steals and two blocks, closing out her versatile career with another stat-stuffing effort.
“I’m so happy to end the season like this and to get a win, but it’s sad to be leaving everybody,” said Kalaya. Like most of the team, she said that it was hard to see a golden light at the end of the tunnel after a 53-point loss to Mater Dei early in the year. Poly won all 12 games after that contest to finish the year at 18-2, with every win coming by at least 15 points.
“It was mixed,” she said. “I always have faith in my team, but seeing where we were at the time, it would have been hard to guess where we would be at the end of the season. But we did what we had to do.”
Senior Lily Buggs finished with eight points, lower than her postseason average mostly because Rosary’s defensive strategy was so focused on slowing her down. She said that while it was weird playing in a state tournament with no state championship, the message from the coaches that this was their state championship resonated.
“On our team, something that we’re always shooting for is to end the season on a win, and it was good to end my senior year that way, too,” she said.
Senior Khalei Gentle said that she was too hurt after the team’s Mater Dei loss to even begin to picture a title.
“To be honest, no, I didn’t see it,” she said. “We were all so hurt and emotional after that. But coach told us what we had to do to make it here and we made it happen for him.”
Gentle’s progression through the season from starting lineup newcomer to reliable defensive presence who could score on a few plays run for her a game was one of the postseason’s most fun storylines.
“My team was great, they really encouraged me on that, to rebound and make those winning plays,” she said.
Poly’s bench came a long way too, and Buggs was as pleased about senior Hailey King getting a basket at the end of the game as he was with any other part of the win.
Poly junior Nala Williams is the only Jackrabbit starter who will be returning next season. She had 11 points and seven rebounds in the win Saturday, and said the championships this year have been a dream come true.
“I’ve literally been watching Long Beach Poly girls basketball since I was in fourth grade,” she said. “Just sitting in the stands, wanting to go to Poly. Now that I’m a part of it, winning a championship for the greatest coach of all time, it’s amazing. It’s like I’m living a dream right now.”
That dream season at the end of a nightmare year is officially complete, and Poly can start looking to the future. Buggs retired from teaching at the end of the school year, but is planning on continuing to coach. He said that although his daughter is graduating and his team made history in front of a series of alum-packed crowds, he was trying not to be too reflective.
“You know I don’t even think like that,” he said. “As soon as we finish a game, I’m preparing for the next one. All of this will probably hit me later. It did hit me in the locker room a little talking to the team after, because it was pretty deep.”