LA CRESCENTA — Few believed the Crescenta Valley High boys' basketball team could match what it accomplished last year. That doubt fueled the fourth-seeded Falcons right back to the CIF Southern Section Division I-A semifinals Friday night.
Crescenta Valley did so behind a game-high 27 points from its senior leader Cole Currie, who also had nine rebounds, and 21 more from junior spark plug Nick Springer in the quarterfinals. It led the Falcons past Long Beach Millikan's high-pressure defense and fast-pace offense, 68-54, on Crescenta Valley's home floor.
“It feels so good, especially coming into this year, a lot of people were down on us and to be in the same position is just incredible,” said Currie, the Falcons’ only returning starter and key player from 2012. “It's just a testament to our players, [Coach Shawn Zargarian] and the coaching staff to be here in back-to-back years.”
While CV (23-7) did lead for a majority of the game and the final score may suggest a lopsided win, as the Rams cut what was a nine-point Falcons' lead at halftime to two points, 39-37, two minutes and 58 seconds into the third quarter.
“They made that run at us in the third quarter and I felt like it completely sucked air out of us — coaching staff, players — I've got to be honest, we were deflated,” Zargarian said.
Millikan's Brian Chambers, who finished with a team-high 21 points, came out of halftime ready to shoot the lights out, and he did just that for a two-minute spurt.
The senior drilled his first three-pointer 29 seconds into the half, added another 41 seconds and stroked his third 47 ticks after that to bring the Rams within five, 37-32, with less than two minutes into the third.
Currie threw in a reverse layup for his second bucket of the quarter, but Millikan's Mark Thomas and Malik Marquetti (14 points, five steals) scored the next five points on consecutive layups — the second of the and-one variety — to bring the score to 39-37 with 4:02 left in the third.
“We definitely started panicking when they started making some shots,” said Springer, who also had eight rebounds, two steals and two blocks in the game.
After nearly a 1:30 scoring drought, Berj Krikorian — the Falcons' “super sophomore,” as he's referred to over the loudspeaker during home games — let Crescenta Valley's bench and fans breath a bit easier when he took an inbounds pass and sliced through Millikan's full-court pressure before dropping in a layup, giving CV a two-field-goal lead, 41-37, with 2:35 to go.
“I complimented Berj, he made that transition layup and it really opened it up,” Zargarian said. “It's like we took a deep breath. A four-point lead in that game felt really comfortable.”
Ryan Schloessmann (nine points, eight rebounds) added to the Falcons' cushion when cashed in a putback with 49 seconds left, grabbed a steal on the Rams' ensuing possession and tossed it to Krikorian (six points), who outlet the ball to Currie for a lay-in and 45-37 lead.
“I always say in a game where you have the lead most of the game, you never want your opponent to see the lead,” Zargarian said. “If they would have gone ahead, I think it would have sparked even more.”
Marquetti hit a three with nine seconds to go in the third and Thomas added a pair of free throws 11 seconds into the fourth to bring the Rams back within three, 45-42.
Millikan went cold from there, however, not scoring for another 3:50 after missing a pair of free throws, a layup, three-pointer and committing a turnover in that span.
Currie scored the Falcons' next six points and Krikorian added two more to extend their lead to 53-42 with 4:10 to play.
“We knew with them it's a percentage game, they think the more the shoot the more they make,” said Currie, who believed there was never any panic from any of the Falcons Friday. “We knew it was just a hot streak and we knew if we kept doing what we're supposed to defensively they're going to miss some shots and they did.”
The Rams managed to come within eight, 56-48, on a pair of Marquetti layups and free throws from Thomas Pua with 2:39 to play, but they had to hope for the Falcons to uncharacteristically miss some free throws if they were going to come close to the lead.
True to form, Crescenta Valley did no such thing, going 12 for 12 from the line in the fourth quarter — Currie a perfect six-for-six — to deliver the win.
“I don't even know if it's hit me yet, I really don't,” Zargarian said. “I'm excited and I can't really understand that we're back in the semifinals again, it's a great accomplishment.
“Every time we play a game I'm more proud of them and they did it again tonight. They played so hard. Somebody asked me the other day, last year's team or this year's team — this year's team. This year's team is so committed to team, to each other, unselfish; it's so fun to watch.”
The Falcons opened the game on a 10-3 run, behind six points from Currie, and pushed the advantage to 20-11 by the end of the first.
Crescenta Valley began to wear down under Millikan's physical defense in the second and third quarters, committing seven turnovers in each of those frames. Still, it held on to a nine-point halftime lead, 32-23, after closing it out on a 6-2 run with baskets from Currie, Springer and Kris Jaborian.
The Falcons did lose the turnover battle, 22-17, but made up for it with a healthy advantage on the boards, 37-23.
“We're definitely not used to seeing that, but we had a good game plan,” said Schloessmann, who also had three steals and two blocks, of Millikan's tough defense. “We lost our composure for a few minutes, but we definitely regained it.”
Crescenta Valley will travel Tuesday to face top-seeded El Toro, which is coming off a 70-64 quarterfinal win over Corona Santiago, in the semifinals at 7 p.m. El Toro fell victim to the Falcons in the quarterfinals last year, 61-49, and they'll be looking to move past them again in the championship quest.
“We feel like we have unfinished business from last year,” Currie said. “We came up a little bit short last year, and we feel we have some unfinished business to take care of.”