It’s starting to feel like Long Beach Poly’s playoff run will end whenever senior guard Nala Williams decides she’s ready. The Jackrabbits’ leading scorer has been everything her team has needed this season, and nothing changed during Saturday night’s 49-43 win over Fairmont Prep in the CIF-SS Division 1 quarterfinals in Anaheim.
“She’s special, man,” said Long Beach Poly head coach Carl Buggs. “She can affect the game in so many ways, not just scoring, but offensive rebounds, defensive rebounds, hustle plays, she just does all the little things without ever coming off the court. We’re asking a lot from her, and she’s delivered.”
Tonight’s delivery was to the tune of 31 points, 10 rebounds, plus a couple of steals. In the second half, Williams accounted for all but one of Poly’s made field goals as the Jackrabbits battled for another tough win on the road.
Her talent on the court has been on full display during this playoff run, but perhaps more impressive has been Williams’ unquenchable desire to compete–and win. When asked what goes through her mind during those crucial moments in the game to bring out her best, Williams indicated it was more than skin deep.
“Well, I’ve got a tattoo of a jackrabbit right here on my wrist,” said Williams as she pulled up her left sleeve. “So anytime I step on the court, I have to believe that I’m the best person on the court and I just play with that confidence of Long Beach Poly Basketball.”
Poly trailed 9-8 after the first eight minutes, but an and-one from Williams to start the second quarter sparked an 11-0 Jackrabbit run to put Poly up by 10–the biggest lead of the night for either team. After Fairmont Prep battled back, Helena Vu banked in a shot just before the halftime buzzer to put the ‘Rabbits up 25-20 at the break.
The Huskies then surged into the lead with a 9-2 spurt to start the second half, which included a bizarre foul call on Poly’s senior point guard, Kristal Caldwell. In an attempt to steal the ball, Caldwell was jumping alongside a Huskies player, then after gaining control of the ball, threw it off of her opponent, who appeared to be standing out of bounds. The ball ended up hitting the Fairmont Prep player in the head, and Caldwell was assessed an intentional foul.
That was also Caldwell’s third personal foul, and she spent much of the second half on the bench with foul trouble before fouling out in the final minute. That forced Poly to adjust its defensive gameplan without one of its key starters, who led Poly with four steals in limited minutes.
“She’s probably our best on-ball defender, so when you get in trouble like that, it takes you out of the game and other players have to step up,” Buggs said of Caldwell. “So we started switching more late in the game and once we started doing that, it took away their options, particularly the backdoor cuts.”
A three by Madeleine Salud gave the Huskies the lead at 29-27 midway through the third, but Williams would immediately respond for Poly. She scored Poly’s next seven points to help spark a 9-2 run to close out the third, restoring the Jackrabbit lead to 36-31 heading to the fourth.
Fairmont Prep would pull within a point on three different occasions during the fourth quarter, but the Jackrabbits were able to execute down the stretch. The Huskies pulled to within 43-42 with 3:23 to go, but would manage just one field goal attempt the rest of the game. The Jackrabbits were able to keep the ball and drain the clock thanks to a number of offensive rebounds, collecting 17 of them on the night.
Free throws from Williams, Destiny Horton, and Skylar Mills would be enough for the Jackrabbits to put the game away. In addition to Williams’ 31-point outburst, Mills added eight points and Andrea Perkins hit two first-half threes to finish with six.
For Fairmont Prep, junior post Siyanda Salter led the Huskies with 14 points while Salud added 13.
The playoff run will continue for the Jackrabbits, who are working well together as a team while their senior leader is playing some of her best basketball. Williams dedicated Saturday’s performance to her aunt, Tyka Booker, who was in town from Texas to watch her niece put on a memorable performance in the green & gold.
“It feels amazing. We got the win,” said Williams, before her aunt politely commandeered the interview with some fitting words of her own.
“When you’re from Long Beach, that’s what you do!,” yelled Booker. “When you’re from Long Beach you show up! We showed up in Orange County. It’s all about that LBC.”
The Jackrabbits will return to the LBC on Wednesday night for their CIF semifinal game against No. 2-seed Viewpoint, scheduled for 7 p.m. inside Ron Palmer Pavilion.