SANTA ANA — The Irvine Valley College men's basketball team opened up Orange Empire Conference play Friday night against Santa Ana College, and it was a good thing the game wasn't scored on style points.
Santa Ana likes to drag its opponents into the dirt and make it a scrap, and Friday's matchup certainly was grimy.
Irvine Valley (14-3, 1-0 in conference) made just 16 of 56 field goal attempts (28.6%) including a dismal one for 20 from beyond the three-point line, but still managed to emerge on top with a 46-40 victory.
"To get a win when we weren't functioning well, when we weren't shooting well, it's a sign of a good team," said Jerry Hernandez, now in his 17th year leading IVC's men's program. "[Santa Ana] controls the tempo with their offense, they're spread and deliberate, and they made us panic a little bit. We had some easy shots but they just weren't falling for us."
Hernandez relies heavily on his starting guards, sophomores Kalob Hatcher and Ramon Mejia, but both suffered poor shooting nights. Hatcher did not connect on nine attempts and Mejia was two for 12.
But Hatcher hit some key free throws down the stretch and handled the ball while running down the clock in the final minutes, and Mejia, from Corona del Mar High, hit the Lasers' only three-pointer of the night.
Friday's win, though, required help from the bench, particularly Jose Vasquez and Michael Bolden, both who scored a team-high 10 points. Bolden, a freshman from Trabuco Hills High, also had the highlight play of the night, taking an alley-oop pass from Hatcher and throwing down a reverse dunk.
Both teams struggled offensively in the first half, which ended with Santa Ana on top, 21-19. But the Lasers had to feel pretty good about themselves, down only two despite going 0 for 12 on three-pointers and eight for 32 from the field overall.
Santa Ana went up, 27-24, on a three-pointer by Jayson Collins early in the second half. But that's when IVC's defense sparked a 12-0 run midway through the second half, the Lasers taking control.
"One zone we used with certain lineups had some success, and created some offensive opportunities," Hernandez said.
A dunk by Bolden on a fastbreak capped the run and gave the Lasers a 36-27 lead. Santa Ana got within four points with less than two minutes remaining, but never any closer and IVC held on to start off conference play on a good note.
The Lasers also got a solid game from Zach Mills, a freshman from Esperanza High, who scored eight points on four of eight shooting. Santa Ana's Kacy Barlow led all scorers with 13 points.
"I'm proud of our kids, they stayed poised," Hernandez said. "There's a lot of pressure; people are gunning for us."
Hernandez knows the Orange Empire Conference will be tough as usual, and his team has a target on its back. Even though the Lasers finished third in conference last season at 8-4, they upset No. 1 seed Mt. San Antonio College in the Southern California Regionals and were one victory away from reaching the California Community College Athletic Assn. final four.
The two teams from the Southern Regional that did reach the final four were Citrus and conference counterpart Saddleback.
"We have a lot of high aspirations for the kids," Hernandez said. "We draw a lot of local kids, a lot of Orange County kids. It makes it more special for me and special for the school."
IVC finished 23-8 overall last year, the seven-point loss to Citrus in the SoCal Regionals keeping them from the state tournament.
"We ran out of gas," Hernandez said.
This season, IVC's 14-3 overall start is better than any team in the conference, but Hernandez knows the challenge that lies ahead in conference.
"The league is very talented, and extremely well-coached," Hernandez said. "But our aspirations won't stop at league."
IVC resumes Orange Empire Conference play with a home game against Saddleback on Wednesday at 5:30 p.m.