LOS ANGELES — The members of the Bellarmine-Jefferson High boys' basketball team walked into Staples Center on Wednesday afternoon and took some time to enjoy the moment and marvel at the arena that is home to the Los Angeles Lakers and Clippers.
Many of the Guards still couldn’t wrap their heads around the fact that they were about to play in the venue and they would have the opportunity to step on the same floor that has hosted an array of NBA greats.
Following the admiration session, however, the Guards tried not to concentrate on the grandeur of their surrounding and instead focus their efforts on the nonleague game at hand against an undefeated San Gabriel Academy team.
Despite possessing a length disadvantage and having two of its players foul out, Bell-Jeff used a sustained defensive effort and benefited from a solid showing in the second half to earn a 64-51 victory.
The Guards players had varying reactions to playing at Staples Center, a venue in which San Gabriel Academy competed last year.
“It was nerve wracking, very nerve wracking when I first got on the floor,” Bell-Jeff senior Giovanni Gabb said. “It’s much different than what we’re used to, and it took some time getting used to it. I’ve never played in a place like this.”
Added senior Jalen Henry: “I was just in awe when I first saw the court. Just to be able to play a game at Staples Center is pretty overwhelming. The whole place is just breathtaking. I wasn’t expecting it to be as big as it is. And when I was shooting the ball if felt so different. But it was a great experience.”
Both the Guards (2-3) and the Eagles (4-1) showed some early jitters at the start of the game, as each committed five turnovers in the first quarter. However, as the game wore on, Bell-Jeff was able to overcome its turnover problems. The same couldn’t be said about San Gabriel.
Using a swarming pressure defense, the Guards continually hounded the Eagle ballhandlers, which translated in 27 turnovers in the game by San Gabriel.
“We asked our guys to give their maximum effort through the entire game,” Bell-Jeff Coach Julian Andrade said. “We wanted them to not only make the initial effort, but to come with the second and third efforts every time. I think we did a great job at that.
“That’s what really helped us with our defense. The guys brought the pressure and they gave the effort when they needed to.”
The defense definitely fueled the Bell-Jeff offense. Despite fouling out with 4:31 remaining in the game, Gabb tallied 16 points to go along with four steals. Teammate Will Morales, a senior, had 16 points of his own. Despite getting his fourth foul in the second quarter, sophomore Abid Oses contributed eight points and nine rebounds and junior Malcolm Regisford chipped in eight points and seven rebounds.
San Gabriel, which boasts four players 6-foot-5 or taller — including 6-9 junior Ricky Gao and 6-6 junior Josh Ajayi — got the Guards in foul trouble early and looked to take advantage. But with a deep bench, Bell-Jeff was able to tap into its reserves, especially in a fourth quarter that saw Oses foul out with 1:31 left.
“We knew they were a bigger team, so we just wanted to get after them and try to use our speed,” Morales said. “We wanted to be the team that has more heart and the team that plays harder.”
The Guards couldn’t contain Ajayi, who had two monster dunks. The junior ended with a game-high 23 points to go along with 13 rebounds. Junior teammate Amas Dautartus added 19 points, including a 14-of-16 effort from the free-throw line.
The Eagles held a slim 14-13 lead after one quarter. However, 10 turnovers by San Gabriel helped the Guards surge ahead in the second, as they held a 31-26 advantage at halftime.
San Gabriel was able to whittle the lead down to one, 41-40, with less than a minute left in the third quarter on a nice turnaround jumper by Ajayi. But a basket and a foul that turned into a three-point play by Morales and two free throws by Gabb allowed Bell-Jeff to head into the final stanza with a six-point cushion.
Shooting woes affected the Eagles in the fourth, as they converted just one of their eight shots from the field. They also committed seven turnovers. San Gabriel’s lone field goal of the fourth came on a layup by Ajayi with 1:51 remaining.
The Guards took full advantage, upping their lead to as much as 12, 56-44, with 2:33 left in the contest.
“I’m very proud of the way our guys played today,” Andrade said. “We beat a pretty good team over there. This is an effort that I know we were capable of.”