LONG BEACH — For the first time in Bryan Rice's four-year head coaching tenure at his alma mater, the Costa Mesa High boys' basketball team reached a tournament championship game Saturday night.
It went by too fast at St. Anthony High — literally. The pace of the game was too speedy for the Mustangs.
St. Anthony forced Costa Mesa into 26 turnovers. The Saints protected their home court, winning their host tournament, 69-50, in a game that was still closer than the final score would suggest.
"The press was what kind of took us out of what we wanted to do," Rice said. "We feel that we're more skilled than we showed tonight, but we played at a hurried pace. They're better at their style of game than we are at their style of game. We couldn't control it for the full 32 minutes, to make it our style of game."
Senior guard Nick Hefner had a team-high 14 points for Mesa, and his sophomore brother, Kyle, added 13 points. Nick Hefner and senior guard Jordan Walden (seven points) were all-tournament selections for Costa Mesa.
The Mustangs (5-3) battled, even as things didn't go its way early. Senior center and team captain Saaeed El-Assadi picked up his second personal foul less than four minutes into the game, on what Rice thought was a questionable illegal screen call.
The Mustangs still led after the first quarter but fell behind in the second. A three-pointer from the Saints' Duzahy Green at the halftime buzzer doubled the Saints' lead at the intermission, 30-24.
Mesa did not fold against St. Anthony (5-0). The Mustangs pulled within a point midway through the third quarter, 34-33, on a drive to the basket by senior guard Nick Dawson.
St. Anthony junior guard Jordan Anderson missed a three-pointer, and Mesa had a chance to take the lead. But the Mustangs failed to corral the rebound. Anderson got the ball back, buried a three-pointer and was fouled. The four-point play pushed the Saints' lead back to five points.
St. Anthony added three-point plays by Jelanie Jackson and Carl Sanford before the quarter ended, and pushed their lead to 50-38 after three quarters.
Sanford, the tournament MVP, provided the dagger in the fourth quarter. His three-pointer with 4:30 left gave St. Anthony a 17-point lead. Sanford, a 5-foot-11 senior guard, came off the bench to tally 16 points and a team-best eight rebounds for the Saints.
"He should be a starter, but he brings so much energy off the bench that I can't really start him," St. Anthony Coach Chris Morrison said. "You saw the energy. He comes in and he's just non-stop. He's like the Energizer bunny. He doesn't really get tired."
Anderson and Jionntay Spear were also all-tournament team selections for St. Anthony. Spear energized the home crowd with a transition dunk in the fourth quarter.
Poor free-throw shooting (14 of 30) also hurt Costa Mesa.
"When you don't shoot well and you turn the ball over 25, 26 times, it's not a recipe that's going to win too many ball games," Rice said. "But I'm proud of our kids for getting to this championship game. That's something that Costa Mesa hasn't done in a while. We're still learning as a group. We've got three sophomores that we count on and three or four seniors that we count on, so it's a group that's still learning to play together."