PASADENA — The Crescenta Valley High boys' basketball team was all that stood between Muir and an outright Pacific League championship on Tuesday.
While the Falcons proved to be an immovable object for much of the back-and-forth game, they couldn't hold back the Mustangs from going on a big run to start the fourth quarter. And in the end, although the game tightened up once again down the stretch, they could only watch as Jelani Mitchell sealed host Muir's 66-63 win from the free throw line.
"It was a lot of pressure," said Mitchell, who finished with 16 points and made five of six from the line in the final two minutes of the fourth quarter to quell Crescenta Valley's frantic comeback attempt. "This game was for the championship and I really wanted it, the whole team did. I fumbled the ball sometimes and turned it over, but I brought it together and made my free throws."
Muir (24-1, 13-0), which got 17 points from Tevin Polk and 16 points and seven steals from Dion Nelson, had already clinched at least a share of the league title on Friday when it defeated Glendale and Crescenta Valley beat Pasadena. Now, the only thing left for the Mustangs to shoot for before the start of the CIF playoffs is completing an unbeaten league run and sweeping the season series with archrival Pasadena, which visits Muir on Thursday.
"I'm really proud of our guys, they've come a long way in three short seasons with me at the helm," Muir Coach Gamal Smalley said. "To go this far, 13-0, is pretty incredible."
Crescenta Valley (21-5, 10-3), fresh off its biggest win of the season, was aiming to beat the Mustangs and set up a scenario where a CV win over Arcadia on Thursday, coupled with a Pasadena win over Muir, would create a three-way league championship. Now, the Falcons, who were led by 14 points apiece from guards Cole Currie and Dylan Kilgour, will be rooting for the Mustangs in the hopes of pulling into a tie with the Bulldogs for second place.
"Muir plays with heart for 32 minutes and that pressure wears on you," Falcons Coach Shawn Zargarian said. "I think our guys did a good job early, but I think fatigue kind of got to us. ...But Muir played hard. They got after us for 32 and I think our kids played hard. I was proud of the way our kids played tonight. At the end of the day, it's a loss, but I'm proud of their effort."
Crescenta Valley's plan looked to be working well enough through the first three quarters, which saw the Falcons open up a six-point lead by halftime and trade numerous leads with the Mustangs throughout the third. But Muir's 51-49 lead to begin the fourth quickly ballooned behind a 10-2 run.
Maurice Ballard's second-chance three-pointer, set up by an offensive rebound by Nelson, started the Mustangs' spurt, which continued with a bucket in the post from Brian Carrier and a steal and layup finish by Nelson. Christian Misi, who scored 13 points and had 12 rebounds, worked his way in for a tough shot down low for the Falcons' first points of the quarter at the 3:52 mark, but Polk answered right back with a three-pointer that gave Muir its biggest lead of the game, 61-51, with 3:05 left.
Everything that had been working offensively for Crescenta Valley earlier — beating Muir's presses and traps and knocking down open shots — disappeared in the fourth quarter, as the Falcons committed three critical turnovers early in the quarter and made just two of seven from beyond the arc after making seven of 18 prior.
"I think they did a better job of rotating and getting hands up in our guys' faces and I think we kind of settled a little bit too much for the three where we could have done a better job of getting to the rim," Zargarian said of the Mustangs' momentum shift.
The Falcons weren't done yet, though, as Davis Dragovich sank a three-pointer to cut the lead back to seven with 2:20 left and Misi hit two free throws to get within five. But an opportunity to get closer after a Muir turnover slipped away on a missed layup and offensive goaltending call and Carrier came up with a huge offensive rebound on Muir's next possession with a little over a minute left, forcing the Falcons to foul the rest of the way.
After a tepid first quarter in which they missed their first four shots while turning the ball over three times, the Mustangs stayed in the game by attacking the rim, getting to the line for seven more free throws in the game than CV, 18-11, — not counting Mitchell's final six that were a result of intentional fouls to stop the clock.
"They went to the rack," Zargarian said. "They really put pressure on our defense by getting to the rim tonight."
It helped Muir weather Crescenta Valley's biggest run of the game, a 9-0 streak that saw Kilgour and Currie combine for seven points. The Falcons finished the quarter strong, with Kilgour draining a three for a 37-31 lead.
Mitchell scored all eight of his points from the field in the third quarter, however, to help the Mustangs retake the lead with an 11-2 run. There were five more lead changes over the rest of the third.
"Last year we called him the Big Fundamental, now we call him Mr. Clutch," Smalley said of Mitchell. "He's very good at the free-throw line and that was our goal to get the ball in his hands at the end. In the first half, he only took two shots and I just reamed him at halftime. He came out more aggressive in the second half and I thought that was a big key for us."