Everything has a different edge in the playoffs, a fact that the Long Beach Poly boys’ basketball team was reminded of Friday night in their CIF-SS Division 2AA playoff opener against Villa Park. The two teams slugged it out defensively in the first half, and at the break just 26 points had been scored total. Poly found themselves trailing by four early in the fourth, but rebounded to win 51-43.
The Jackrabbits will host Simi Valley on Tuesday at 7 p.m. as they try to advance to the quarterfinals.
“They had some nerves, we had some nerves, it’s the first playoff game and there’s fans and a great atmosphere and all those things we missed with COVID,” said Poly coach Shelton Diggs. “We’re a defensive team, so we have that to rely on. We needed that tonight.”
There’s no doubt about that, because the Jackrabbits didn’t make their first basket until more than five minutes into the game, when Christian Watson hit a layup for two of his game-high 20 points. Poly trailed 7-4 after the first quarter and led 14-12 at halftime thanks to a late basket from senior Daniel Hardy.
Villa Park did a great job of containing Watson’s drives without fouling in the first half, and Poly struggled to adapt offensively. Defensively, the Jackrabbits gave up just four baskets in the first half and were playing great.
“Guys are scouting Chris they know what he’s good at, that’s part of the playoffs,” said Diggs. “What’s great about him is he can figure out a next move and a next move.”
The third quarter saw the game open up, as both teams more than doubled their first half total. Watson adjusted by getting down the court for more transition baskets before Villa Park could set up its defense in front of him. Marcel Hayes was key in the third quarter, with five points including a big three that cut the Villa Park lead to one.
But the Spartans still found themselves leading 34-30 two minutes into the fourth quarter. Fortunately for Poly, Hardy came ready to make a big impact on the game. He had two 3-pointers in the fourth quarter, the first of which cut the Villa Park lead to one, the second of which put Poly up 44-37. In addition to his eight points, he also had 11 rebounds and played great defense in between his big 3-pointers.
“I just stay confident and stay ready to shoot,” said Hardy. “We’re all bought in–when we play as a team we play well, we just have to keep moving the ball around and playing defense as a team.”
After opening up the lead to 10 points on a basket from Hayes and a free throw from Jovani Ruff, Poly was able to hit enough free throws down the stretch to win. The Jackrabbits scored 23 points in the fourth quarter after having scored 28 in the first three, and outscored Villa Park 21-9 down the stretch after trailing early in the fourth.
They were also buoyed by a loud and boisterous home crowd, which the players said lifted their spirits.
“It’s great to have the crowds back and be able to perform on that stage,” said Watson. “We love the support, it gets our energy up for sure.”