Every single player on the Long Beach Poly girls’ basketball team projects at the next level as a guard or a wing, and the Jackrabbits have been soldiering through this season without a true post player. That poses a pretty big challenge (pun intended) for a team that had to travel to Marlborough Wednesday evening for a CIF Southern Section Division 1 second round playoff game.
The Mustangs boasted three six-footers on their roster, including a 6-4 post coming off the bench. The Jackrabbits weren’t intimidated, however, and played a stellar defensive game under the philosophy of “the bigger they are, the harder they fall.” Poly came home with a win on the road, 41-34.
“They might be bigger physically, they might be stronger physically, but I just kept telling myself I’m stronger than them mentally,” said Poly senior Skylar Mills. “That was our mentality. Just go out there and bruise them up.”
It was a remarkably even game, with the first, second, and fourth quarters all seeing both teams score 11 points. The difference in the game was the third quarter, which Poly won 8-1 with a nearly flawless defensive performance. The Jackrabbits got two charges drawn from Kristal Caldwell that quarter, Nala Williams had two of her six steals that quarter, and Poly held Marlborough to just the one point.
“This is huge for us, the girls pulled together defensively and in that third quarter we started to put that foot down a little bit,” said Poly coach Carl Buggs. “It’s just about making their bigs work, keep that pressure on them to get them tired. We wanted to be physical as heck and we did that, we made them work for everything.”
The Jackrabbits were once again boosted by the heroics of Williams, who has had a memorable senior campaign. She hit two buzzer-beating circus shot 3-pointers in the first quarter to keep the game tied 11-11. In the second, Mills took over and scored nine of her 12 points, and the game was tied 22-22 going into halftime.
The third quarter is where Poly outscored Marlborough 8-1 and effectively won the game. Destiny Horton got a basket and Williams made a pair of free throws, but it was two steals and scores by Caldwell that provided the highlights.
In the fourth, Poly kept the lead at five points or more the entire time, successfully able to fend off a few pushes from the Mustangs as Williams scored nine of her game-high 19 in the last eight minutes. Perhaps more impressively, the undersized Williams added 11 rebounds and six steals, controlling the paint down the stretch despite Marlborough’s significant size advantage.
“It’s more mental than physical, that’s what our coach tells us,” said Williams. “I just pretend they’re not as big as they are, when you focus on their body it makes it easier that way.”
Williams has been the heroic figure late in a number of games for Poly, a role she said she’s embraced.
“It’s a responsibility I appreciate,” she said. “I’ve watched seniors do that for three years take on the same task. So it’s like I’m trained for it.”
While Williams was able to carry the load offensively with almost half of Poly’s points, the defensive effort was team-wide, with Caldwell pestering ballcarriers and Mills, Horton, and Jaleina Taliauli all harassing the Marlborough bigs.
“I think the kids have bought in, and you need everybody to buy in,” said Buggs. “It can’t just be some people. And our leadership is coming through, the players who’ve been through this program, the seniors.”
The Jackrabbits will be on the road again Saturday in the CIF-SS Division 1 quarterfinals, as they visit Fairmont Prep.