PASADENA — Nothing could have pleased the revved up orange-clad crowd that showed up to back the unbeaten Pasadena Poly boys' basketball team on Saturday more than seeing visiting Flintridge Prep fall flat on its face right out of the gate.
And that's exactly what they got, as the Panthers staggered the Rebels with a run of 10 unanswered points in the opening minutes.
But rather than put the Rebels' lights out, the early setback in a hostile environment only served as a wakeup call for their stifling halfcourt defense, which responded promptly and carried Prep to a 57-49 Prep League win.
"Coming in, we knew their schedule wasn't exactly stacked, they hadn't played a whole lot of tough teams," said Prep center Kenyatta Smith, who scored 14 points, blocked seven shots and pulled down 23 rebounds, none bigger than the offensive board he grabbed with 1:46 left in the fourth quarter with his team up by eight that halted the Panthers' final surge and turned the game into a free-throw shooting contest down the stretch. "We knew they were going to be one of our toughest tests so far this season and we just wanted to give them as good a run for their money as we possibly could."
In addition to Smith's offensive output and defensive dominance, the Rebels (13-4, 4-0 in league) also got a big lift from Jedrick Eugenio, who led the team with 16 points and hit a number of big shots throughout the game.
"It feels great because last year it was embarrassing here," Eugenio said in reference to the teams' 21-point loss at Poly last Feb. 3. "I just wanted to help our team win."
Eugenio scored the first three points of the game from long range, but after that the Rebels fell behind, 10-3, with 2:31 left in the first quarter. After a timeout, Prep began to turn the tables with a 10-1 run of its own that saw the Panthers (15-1, 3-1) go scoreless form the field until the 4:22 mark of the second quarter.
"It shook us up a bit," Prep Coach Garrett Ohara said of the rough start. "I thought once we fought through that stretch, we came back methodically and our defense was stellar."
With the arrival of its defense, the offense wasn't far behind for Prep, which grew its 21-16 halftime lead into a double-digit advantage over the first three minutes of the second half.
Kory Hamane, who scored 11 points for Prep, sank a three-pointer from the left side for a 28-18 lead and on the Rebels' next possession, Eugenio squared up a three from the same spot on the other side of the court to push the lead to 31-18 with 5:20 left in the quarter.
"He hit the first couple and I told him, 'Don't stop, keep shooting all night,'" Smith said of Eugenio. "It was a huge confidence boost for him in the beginning of the game and he just kept it going through."
Hunter Merryman, who led all scorers with 23 points, converted a three-point play with 1:36 left in the third to bring Poly within eight, but Eugenio sank two more from beyond the arc before the quarter's end to keep Prep up, 43-33, going into the fourth.
Merryman would give the Panthers one last hope when he cut the lead down to eight again with a four-point play with just over two minutes left, but Prep effectively milked the clock to hold off any potential rally.
"We just kept our composure," Eugenio said. "When times get like that we just rally each other back and stay poised and keep playing."