The Long Beach Poly boys’ basketball team is headed to the CIF Southern Section Division 2AA semifinals after pulling away from Crespi late in the game on the road in the quarters. The Jackrabbits trailed by six points in the second half but got clutch performances from freshman Jovani Ruff and senior Daniel Hardy off the bench. Poly used a 10-0 run to get some space and pulled away for a 58-48 victory.
Players and coaches alike celebrated with a lot of emotion after the win, which took place in a packed Crespi gym with a large and loud student section that brought a lot of energy and atmosphere on Friday night.
“These quarterfinal games are always really hard, but we love playing on the road, we love an environment like this, and my team stepped up when it counted,” said Poly coach Shelton Diggs.
The Jackrabbits defense came out dialed in, forcing four turnovers in the first quarter and scoring three times on those opportunities. Senior Marcel Hayes had 10 points in the first quarter to help boost Poly to a 16-11 lead. The Jackrabbits offense stagnated in the second quarter though, with a flurry of missed 3-pointers, and Crespi looked comfortable in their own gym bombing from deep. The Celts took a 26-25 lead at halftime.
Things looked dicy for Poly in the third quarter as Crespi built a 34-28 lead, but Diggs’ team started to run its offense through Ruff, who delivered. He went 6/6 from mid-range and banged in a pair of 3-pointers as well as part of an 18-point performance. In the third Ruff had seven, and senior Gabe Cummings went 3/3 from the free-throw line after being fouled while shooting from long-range. Hardy also came in off the bench and provided a spark, as he, Ruff, and Cummings keyed a 10-0 run that Poly back up again. A baseline buzzer-beater from Darron “Budda” Henry put Poly up 40-36 after three.
Hardy continued to play the hero in the fourth quarter, as he hit another pair of 3-pointers to put Poly up 48-39. Although he doesn’t start, the senior has come in and made key shots in several games for Poly this year.
“I just believe in my team and believe in my shot and I know my guys will find me if I’m open so I have to hit those shots,” said Hardy. “This was fun, it was my first time playing in front of a crowd like that because of COVID, but it was an awesome energy.”
Crespi continued to hit shots, but Ruff hit a mid-range jumper, and then late in the game after Crespi had cut the lead back to five, Ruff hit a 3-pointer to put Poly up eight with a minute left, effectively ending the game.
“He loves an environment like this, he’s a competitor,” said Diggs.
“I loved hearing their students talk smack and coming in and beating them,” said Ruff, who said he didn’t blink when his team fell behind in the third quarter. “I was just telling myself to stay locked in because I knew we were going to win this game.”
Poly senior leader Christian Watson didn’t have his best game and struggled scoring, but he made winning plays late, knocking down his free throws in the stretch, drawing a critical offensive foul in the fourth, and assisting with a great pass to Ruff on his final 3-pointer. Watson also got to serve as the human exclamation point, ending the game by stealing it from a Crespi ballhandler and dunking emphatically.
“He’s a natural scorer, but when you’re not scoring you find other ways to affect the game,” said Diggs. “He did a great job finding ways to be effective.”
Poly was led by Ruff’s 18 points and 11 apiece from Watson and Hardy, as well as 10 from Hayes. Crespi was led by a strong performance from freshman Payton White, who had 18 points.
The Jackrabbits will travel to Foothill Tuesday evening for the semifinals.