SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA PREP BASKETBALL REGIONALS : Tustin Has Look of a State Finalist : Division II: Plain old Tillers shock top-ranked Artesia, 51-36. San Ramon awaits in Oakland.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Maybe it's the shabby uniforms or center Brian Reider's shaggy hair. Or maybe it's the less-than-imposing, six-foot forwards or those hideous black sneakers.

Let's face it, Tustin isn't the best-looking boys' basketball team around. Except when it's playing.

Looks do kill; just ask Artesia. Tustin defeated the state's top-ranked Division II team, 51-36, in the Southern California Regional championship game Saturday night at the Los Angeles Sports Arena.

The improbable victory moved Tustin (29-4) into the state championship game against San Ramon (29-2) at 3 p.m. Saturday at the Oakland Coliseum Arena.

Artesia (28-3) came in ranked No. 1 by Cal-Hi Sports and riding a 19-game winning streak. It left in a daze, with Coach Wayne Merino unable to explain what had happened.

"Because we're young," was all Merino could say.

Artesia started a talented sophomore front line of Avondre Jones, James Cotton and Charles O'Bannon, but it was no match for Tustin after a first quarter in which Artesia opened a 15-8 lead and blocked six Tiller shots.

But Tustin outscored Artesia, 43-21, from that point by keeping its composure and executing flawlessly. In the end, Tustin outrebounded a team that was taller by three inches at every position, 29-25.

Once again, it was the uncanny play of point guard David Beilstein that kept Tustin on course after the shaky start. Beilstein finished with 18 points, five assists and a pair of fourth-quarter three-point shots that helped seal the victory.

Even Beilstein admitted he had some doubts about going to Oakland after Artesia's intimidating lineup limited Tustin to two field goals in the first quarter.

"I got a little nervous when we were down," he said. "Shooting was difficult against them, but penetrating was easy. They were playing a soft man (defense), and we finally got focused in the third quarter.

"We went into a delay in the fourth quarter, and it seemed like they kind of give it to us in the end."

The teams were tied, 23-23, early in the third quarter before Tustin utilized its patented second-half knockout to destroy another playoff opponent. Tustin scored 10 consecutive points and took a 33-23 lead when Jentry Moore scored on a breakaway layup from the wing with 2:40 left in the third quarter.

Beilstein's second three-pointer with 6:32 remaining in the fourth quarter gave Tustin a 40-27 lead, and then Coach Tom McCluskey put his team into a delay game. Artesia went nearly four minutes without scoring and floundered without direction in the end.

McCluskey said it was important for his team to remain in an attack mode while the Tillers' shots were being rejected by Jones & Co.

"We had to show we weren't going to be intimidated, but it backfired to an extent," McCluskey said. "We were just hoping to get them down a little and frustrate their younger players.

"They were by far the best team we've played. They had superior athletes and size at every position. But this win is a credit to our team's desire and will.

"We played our best half of half-court defense this season in the second half."

Guard DeAndre Austin, Artesia's only senior starter, failed to score until four minutes remained, and he appeared frustrated throughout the second half. Jones, a 6-11 sophomore, was barely visible in the second half, scoring two points. He finished with 11 points, nine rebounds and four blocked shots.

Artesia, the defending Division II state champion, made only six of 20 from the field in the second half and seldom got more than one shot after dominating the boards in the opening half.

Reider, who hasn't cut his hair since the season started, finished with eight points and 11 rebounds and held his own defending another quality center in Jones after facing San Pasqual's Erik Meek Thursday.

And so Tustin, a most unlikely looking team, is one victory away from winning it all.

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