COSTA MESA — First place in the Orange Coast League and the Costa Mesa High boys' basketball team mentioned in the same sentence might sound odd.
But that is where the Mustangs stood Friday night. That is where Coach Bryan Rice expected the Mustangs to be after four league games, quite a turnaround for a team that won a total of three games last season.
In the way, Laguna Beach, the only known winner since the Orange Coast League began in 2006-07. Costa Mesa, leading by four points, was 37 seconds away from beating the Breakers.
Then normalcy returned to the league, if you can call what transpired late at Costa Mesa that. The Breakers remained in first place, barely.
A player with the last name Pillsbury hurt the Mustangs in the stomach down the stretch. Jack Pillsbury drained his only two shots of the game, back-to-back three-pointers in a 21-second span.
The last one did the most damage. From the corner, Pillsbury hit the game-winner with four seconds left, allowing Laguna Beach to rally for a 37-36 victory and stay perfect in league play.
Things did not look so wonderful afterward for Laguna Beach Coach Bret Fleming, or his players who just stole a game to improve to 4-0 in league.
It seemed like two teams suffered their first setback in league.
The Breakers sat in the locker room while Fleming chewed them out for their play. Through the first three quarters, Laguna Beach managed just 16 points and trailed Costa Mesa by eight points.
In the fourth quarter, Laguna Beach topped that total in the fourth quarter, finishing with 21 points. The three-point shot played a big role in the outburst as the Breakers made five of seven from behind the arc.
"We just got lucky," Fleming said.
"The win means nothing. The win means absolutely nothing."
It would have meant a whole lot for the Mustangs (9-11, 3-1 in league). They appeared on their way to knocking off Laguna Beach for the first time since Jan. 12, 2007, and taking control of first place.
The Mustangs began believing they were league title contenders, like in the 2005-06 season, when they won the Golden West League crown.
Costa Mesa led, 35-31, with 37 seconds left. The Mesa Maniacs, students sitting on the bleachers near the court, could not have imagined a Laguna Beach team scoring six points the rest of the way, when they saw the Breakers record just six points combined in the third and second quarters.
The third quarter was bad for both sides, but the Mustangs managed to win it, 3-2. Rice, in his third year as coach, wanted to win the game and beat the Breakers for the first time under his watch.
He saw something coming fans did not.
"They're bound to go on a run at some point," Rice said.
The Breakers did just that with 2:50 left to play. Their final four successful field-goal attempts were all threes. They got wide-open looks every time.
The first two, made by Cole Kesler and Tyler Masukawa, kept Laguna Beach within one possession from tying the game or jumping ahead of the Mustangs.
In the final minute, Costa Mesa had chances at the free-throw line to increase its lead, but players converted just two-of-four attempts from the charity stripe. This allowed the Breakers, usually a good shooting team, to stay within striking distance.
Wide-open three-point looks only helped Laguna Beach, which missed its first nine three-point attempts before the fourth.
Pillsbury hit his first three from the top of the key with 25 seconds to go, cutting the deficit to 35-34.
Seven seconds later, the Breakers fouled, sending Saaeed El-Assadi to the free-throw line. The junior made one, giving him 12 points and pushing the Mustangs lead to two points.
Costa Mesa called a timeout, drawing up a defensive strategy. Rice believed the Mustangs had only five fouls, so a foul would not hurt them. Costa Mesa actually committed six fouls, one more and the Breakers earn a trip to the free-throw line.
The strategy changed, and so did the score. Pillsbury got open in the corner with a screen by Jake Dalke. He buried the three, giving Laguna Beach a one-point lead with four seconds remaining.
Rice immediately called for another timeout, his final one. The Mustangs had one last play, in hopes of a miracle. They had to travel from one end of the floor to the other in four seconds.
Andrew Albers, a 6-foot-7 center, who finished with eight points, 16 rebounds, three steals and two blocks, inbounded the ball to Nick Dawson. The guard raced past midcourt, but he could not get a shot off with two defenders on him.
"We should have won," Rice said. "This game was ours."
Orange Coast League
Laguna Beach 37, Costa Mesa 36
SCORE BY QUARTERS
LB 10 – 4 – 2 – 21 — 37
CM 10 – 11 – 3 – 12 — 36
LB – C. Kesler 9, Masukawa 8, Dalke 6, Pillsbury 6, T. Kesler 4, Reigel 4.
3-pt. goals – Pillsbury 2, Masukawa 2, C. Kesler 1.
Fouled out – None.
Technicals – None.
CM – El-Assadi 12, Albers 8, Dawson 5, Hayes 4, Contreras 4, Dimson 2, Hefner 1.
3-pt. goals – None.
Fouled out – None.
Technicals – None.