Facing an onslaught of three-point baskets by guard Chris Ferguson of University High, Sylmar Coach Bort Escoto looked down his bench with six minutes left Friday night and sought out reserve guard Ramiro Cruz.
“Just shut him down,” Escoto ordered.
“I got him,” Cruz responded. “He’s not scoring anymore.”
Sure enough, Ferguson missed his last four shots under repeated defensive pressure from Cruz as Sylmar held on for a 59-53 City Section 3-A Division semifinal victory over University at Cal State Los Angeles.
Ferguson made six three-pointers and finished with 22 points to rally the Warriors (11-15), who made only seven of 30 shots in the first half when they fell behind 25-20.
But Cruz’s defensive contributions combined with George Wrighster’s 16 points and Jeremiah Turner’s 14 points were enough to earn Sylmar (18-9) a spot in the championship game March 7 at Cal State L.A.
University was setting sturdy screens to clear the way for open shots by Ferguson, who tied the game, 45-45, with a basket with 6:16 left. Cruz, a 5-foot-11 defensive stopper, fought his way through to hold Ferguson scoreless over the final six minutes.
Cruz, a senior, didn’t even play basketball for Sylmar during his sophomore and junior seasons.
“I came out every year but didn’t have the heart,” he said. “You have to have something to remember. It’s my last season, and I had to do something.”
Turner, a 6-6 junior, was another Sylmar player who wasn’t about to let the Spartans’ season end. Last season, he scored six points in a semifinal loss to Franklin.
“I think he was determined to make up for last year,” Escoto said.
When University closed to 49-48 with 4:01 left, Turner answered with back-to-back baskets.
“We were in this situation last year and lost it,” Turner said. “But I wanted this chance again.”
Sylmar’s basketball team has been trying to gain respect at a school known more for its powerful football and baseball teams. The Spartans have never won a City title in basketball.
“Everyone told me, ‘You will never win in basketball--ever,’ ” Escoto said. “Alumni, community members, my coaching brethren--everyone told me.”
Escoto’s first step was to keep the top basketball players at his school. Jerome Joseph (Chatsworth), Kenny Mason (Cleveland), Tyrone Purnell (San Fernando) and Joe Wyatt (Kennedy) are just a few of the players who lived in the Sylmar district in past years but went to other schools.