PASADENA — Eli Essa and Ernest Baskerville have a friendship that goes back more than 25 years, back to when Essa was Baskerville's Ameteur Athletic Union coach on a youth boys' basketball team in the San Fernando Valley.
When Baskerville became the basketball coach at Providence two seasons ago, he asked Essa to be one of his assistant coaches. And when Baskerville took over the Pasadena La Salle job prior to this season, he again asked Essa to assist him. Both times Essa respectfully declined.
Essa, a former boys' coach at Bellarmine-Jefferson, did, however, agree to be an assistant this season for the Guards under Coach Julian Andrade.
Andrade had a business event he had to attend to when his Bell-Jeff team took on La Salle in a Martin Luther King Showdown game, leaving Essa in charge of the Guards. That left Baskerville to match wits with his former coach in the opening game of the event Monday morning at La Salle.
Although Bell-Jeff played well in spurts, it couldn't sustain a high level of play throughout the contest and asa result, absorbed a 67-59 loss against the Lancers.
"He was a good student of mine and I've probably forgotten a lot of the stuff that I taught him," a laughing Essa said about Baskerville. "When you play against one of Ernest's teams, you know they're going to be well coached. They are going to play great defense, and switch up different defenses, and I know he is great at developing players, which he has at La Salle."
Baskerville, the tournament director, said it was a pleasure to go up against his former coach at his own event. It was second time the two have played one another, the other coming in 2008 when Essa's Guards lost to a Baskerville-coached Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies team, 60-54.
"It's always fun to go against my old coach. But I have to remind him I'm 2-0 against him," Baskerville said with a smile. "But he's a really good guy."
A fine player in his own right, Baskerville lost all of his trophies and awards from his youth. When Essa and Bell-Jeff showed up for the game Monday, the coach brought along a trophy from a tournament Baskerville took part in 25 years ago. Essa gave the trophy to Baskerville.
"I couldn't believe it," Baskerville said. "That's the only one I've got."
With the pleasantries out of the way, the Guards (10-7) and Lancers (8-12) opened the showcase with a hard-fought game.
On the strength of the inside game of La Salle junior forward Chris Robinson (17 points, 12 rebounds), the Lancers were able to seize control in the first quarter. When Robinson made good on a turn-around jumper in the lane with 1:31 remaining in the first, La Salle had an eight-point lead, 16-8. They maintained the cushion as time expired, 18-10.
The Guards converted just four of 14 shots from the floor in the first quarter, and just two players — senior forward Abid Oses and junior wing Clark Thomas — scored. Oses led Bell-Jeff with 25 points and 17 rebounds and sophomore wing Raffy Verano added 13 points.
Bell-Jeff made some adjustments heading into the second quarter, and they paid off.
"We went to a mid-court trap, and I think that helped us a great deal," Essa said. "They really had never done that before, but I just told them where they should be and I thought it worked pretty well for us."
After the Lancers took a 13-point in the second, 25-12, with 6:45 remaining, the Bell-Jeff defense started to do its work. During the final six minutes, the Guards outscored the Lancers, 19-6, and when Oses converted a put-back with four seconds left, Bell-Jeff went into the break even, 31-31.
"We don't like to schedule any easy teams to go up against, even if it's our own event," Baskerville said. "We knew Bell-Jeff has a good team and that they were going to test us."
The Guards carried that late first-half momentum into the third quarter, taking a 35-33 lead early in the stanza. After La Salle snatched the lead back at 38-35, the Guards made another run and took a two-point advantage, 40-38, on a Verano bucket at the 4:03 mark.
But a relentless Lancers team battled back, surging back in front and ending the third with a 50-46 cushion.
"We really weren't playing as hard as we should have and we weren't able to stop them like we should have," Oses said. "And in the offense we didn't play together, and that hurt us."
In the fourth quarter, Bell-Jeff was able to get to within two of the lead, 52-50, with 7:01 left, but that's as close as they would come.