GLENDALE — Up by four points with just more than two minutes remaining, the Glendale Community College men's basketball team was on the cusp of securing a big Western State Conference East Division victory.
Unfortunately for the short-handed Vaqueros, who sat seven players due to injury or illness, they surrendered a late lead.
Visiting Citrus College scored 14 of the game's final 21 points to deal the Vaqueros a bitter 77-74 defeat on Saturday afternoon.
"Our guys battled and we were down a little bit," Glendale Coach Vigen Jilizian said. "We only had six healthy bodies and the seventh guy tried to go, but couldn't. We're not going to quit, that's not our MO, but we just didn't close out."
Rest may have been a key factor for the Vaqueros, as all five starters played 31 or more minutes, led by 40 minutes from freshman guard Dominic Gully (11 points). That contrasted with no starter playing more than 27 minutes for Citrus.
Despite all the obstacles, the Vaqueros (11-9, 1-2 in conference) held a 67-63 lead with 2:34 remaining in the contest after a jumper from freshman guard Serigne Athj, who led all scorers with 24 points and added six rebounds.
The lead did not last, as Citrus (17-5, 2-1) responded with an 11-2 spurt in 2 minutes, 06 seconds capped on a pair of free throws from sophomore Kenneth Cyprian (13 points) with 29.5 seconds left, as the Owls led, 74-69.
While Citrus was red-hot during its run, the Vaqueros didn't help their cause with three turnovers and a missed jumper.
Glendale found some life when sophomore Anjge-Michel Kuo (13 points) buried a three-pointer with 13.4 seconds left off an assist from Jordan Matthews (10 points and five rebounds) to bring the Vaqueros within 74-72.
Both teams traded free throws over the next 10 seconds before Citrus' Kyle Gray drained two more free throws with 1.5 seconds left to put the Owls up, 77-74.
A last-second, half-court heave from Glendale's Denzel Nwanguma sailed high over the backboard as Citrus held on.
"It was mental mistakes," Athj said. "We were poised for most of the game and then when it came down to it, I don't want to say we choked, but we got a little happy and turned the ball over and that cost us the game."
Glendale was down by as many as 13 points in the first half and trailed, 43-31, with 18:50 left in the second half after a jumper from Jeremy Smith, who led Citrus with 23 points.
From that moment, the Vaqueros rallied via a 19-9 run and pulled even at 52 on a pair of free throws from Kuo with 11:42 remaining. The catalyst for Glendale's run was Athj, who scored eight points in the surge.
Glendale did not take a lead, however, until an offensive put back from Matthews with 7:30 left, which put the Vaqueros ahead, 62-61.
Glendale eventually led by as many as four points, but did not hold on.
"We've been in this situation countless times this season where we've been down," Athj said. "Not to talk down upon our team, we've been the underdog a lot this year and we know how to fight from that position."
Outside of the final two minutes, perhaps the toughest stretch for Glendale took place toward the end of the first half.
Athj drained a three-pointer to bring the Vaqueros within 21-20 with 5:15 left.
Citrus responded with a 12-0 run that culminated on a steal and coast-to-coast layup from Andrew Ammann with 3:22 left as Citrus led, 33-20.
To its credit, Glendale battled back with an 11-5 spurt to trail, 38-31, at the half.
Jack Karapetyan added 14 points, 11 rebounds and four steals as all five Glendale starters scored in double figures.
"You never want to be playing catch-up all the time," Jilizian said. "We told the guys that [Citrus] is a team that you can make runs on. They're a team that sticks a lot of threes in bunches, so when they go in you go down, and when they miss you go up.