John Diebold, Newport Christian High School boys’ basketball coach, stood on the floor of Pepperdine’s Firestone Fieldhouse Friday, staring in shock as the Bel-Air Prep players snipped the net after winning the school’s first Southern Section Small School championship.
Bel-Air had just defeated Newport Christian, 64-58, in front of 500.
“I have no idea what happened,” Diebold said. “It didn’t look like the same team I saw all year.”
It certainly didn’t look like the unseeded team that had swept through the first four rounds of the playoffs. The Conquerors had averaged 82 points and had defeated top-seeded Hesperia Christian in the quarterfinals. Instead, Newport Christian (21-3) trailed early and fell behind by as many as 14 points midway through the fourth quarter.
The victory advances Bel-Air (20-8) to the state Division V playoffs, which begin Tuesday. Newport Christian, which finished the regular season in a three-way tie for first place in the Academy League, can qualify as an at-large team. Selections will be announced Sunday.
Newport Christian shot 38% (21 of 56) and turned the ball over 16 times. “That says it all right there,” Diebold said. “We were throwing the ball out of bounds and into their hands.”
Newport Christian’s 6-foot-7 center Jeremy Clark was held to 10 points and 11 rebounds.
At the same time, Bel-Air’s 5-11 guard Ahmad Clayton was driving the lane and hitting his outside shot on the way to a team-high 23 points. “He’s got to be the player of the year in the Small Schools,” Bel-Air Coach Mike Whiting said. “All he does is beat you. When you need a basket, he’s there.”
Clayton scored 12 points in the first half as the Bruins took a 27-19 lead.
Newport Christian’s leading scorer, John Bahnsen, who was averaging 31 points in the playoffs, managed eight first-half points. He finished with a game-high 27.
“They shut down our big guy and we didn’t have a counterattack with another inside guy,” Bahnsen said. “The key to the game was our first half, we just lost our fundamentals.”
But in the second half, Newport Christian went to its outside game, and pulled within four points, 43-39, late in the third quarter on a three-pointer by Bahnsen.
Bel-Air put the game away early in the fourth quarter, outscoring the Conquerors, 10-4.
“We played good defense,” Whiting said. “They got the ball inside, but they weren’t dominating inside.
“The key down the stretch was that we didn’t let John (Bahnsen) touch the ball. In fact, we could have hit some more free throws and it could have be a blowout.” Bel-Air hit only four of 13 free throws in the fourth quarter.