Rich Boyce walked through the madness that had engulfed the court at Dave Mohs Gymnasium Friday night, bent downward and put his hands to his knees.
“I can’t take this,” he said jokingly, from his crouched position. “This is too much. I’m drained.”
Yet, at the same time, he couldn’t hide his smile as well-wishers came up to congratulate him on a job well done by his Edison boys’ basketball team.
Moments earlier, his Chargers had just secured a return trip to a CIF Southern Section championship final.
In a scintillating finish to a game that had several ebbs and flows, No. 2-seeded Edison held off fast-charging and No. 3-seeded Fontana Kaiser to claim a 56-53 playoff semifinal victory and one spot in next weekend’s Division 2AA title game.
The Chargers, who improved to 24-7, will face top-seeded Chino Hills Ayala (28-3) — which won 71-65 at Los Angeles Loyola in Friday’s other semifinal game, in the division final either next Friday or Saturday at a time and site to be determined. One possible playing venue for the game is The Honda Center in Anaheim, Boyce said.
“What a game, what a game,” was all Boyce could say as he straightened himself up. “It’s so great to get this victory and be back in the final. We hustled and fought but, I don’t think we played particularly well. We did, however, make plays when we absolutely needed to.”
Edison, which tied for second place in the Sunset League, reached the Division 1A final last year at The Honda Center, and finished runner-up to Foothill.
Early on Friday, it looked as though the Chargers might not get back to play for another title. Kaiser, co-champion of the Sunkist League, rode the inside game of 6-foot-5 senior center Armani Dodson to a pair of seven-point leads in the first quarter, one that ended with the Cats (26-5) holding a 16-11 advantage. At the outset of the second quarter, Dodson, who scored 11 of his team-high 17 points in the opening quarter, picked up his third personal foul and went to the bench. That’s when the Chargers made their move.
Picking up their defensive pace, led by the offensive direction of junior guards Randall Walker and Nate Matthews, and getting contributions from several players on both ends of the floor, Edison went on a big run to turn its fortunes. The Chargers pulled into a 17-17 tie when junior forward Jonah Tuato picked up a loose ball and hit a jumper, and took their first lead since 2-0 when Matthews hit a free throw with 4:26 left in the quarter.
Edison would never lose the lead.
The Chargers went on a 9-1 run with Dodson on the bench, and twice opened up a 10-point lead late in the second quarter and settled for a 31-24 lead at the break after Kaiser senior guard Ebrahim Salman hit his team’s first three-point shot of game just before the halftime buzzer. After Dodson hit a turnaround hook shot 12 seconds into the second half to make it 31-26, the Chargers turned it on again. This time, they went on a 13-1 run to open up their largest lead at 17 points. During the run, senior center Tommy Barlow, senior forward Garrett White and sophomore guard David Atencio picked up key rebounds, and it was Atencio who fed Matthews in the corner for a three-point shot that was all-net for a 44-27 lead with 4:55 left in the third quarter.
“We played defense in the second quarter and second half, and that’s what got us going especially with our transition game,” Boyce said. “Kaiser’s a good team and they came right back at us. Our guys did a great job down the stretch though.”
Edison also led by 17 at 46-29 when Kaiser came back with a flurry. The Cats mounted a furious comeback that saw them outscore the Chargers, 17-2, to close out the quarter. It was a 48-46 game heading into the final eight minutes.
Kaiser finally caught the Chargers at 48-48 on junior guard Dylan Harris’ lay-in and had the momentum with 5:57 remaining. Edison took that momentum right back. Walker hit a pair of three throws to put the Chargers in front for good, Atencio hit a baseline bank shot, and after a Kaiser turnover, Matthews fed Walker for a lay-in that took the Edison lead to 54-48.
Kaiser closed to within 54-51 and had the ball with 1:17 to play. A pass inside intended for Dodson was knocked away by Barlow and Matthews came up with the loose ball. The Cats, however, would get the ball back with 35 seconds left on a jump-ball possession. Salman missed from three-point range but Harris came up with a loose ball and drove in for a lay-in to get the Cats within 54-53 with 12.4 seconds left. With a foul to give, the Cats did just that by fouling Matthews on an Edison inbounds pass, and the Chargers retained possession under the Kaiser basket. On the second inbounds play, Matthews again was fouled.
He missed the front end of a one-and-one and Kaiser’s Kenneth Smith chased down the loose ball in the corner, only to be tied up. The possession arrow favored Edison, and the Chargers retained possession. Walker was fouled on the inbounds pass near the Edison bench and calmly swished in two free throws for a 56-53 lead with 5.4 seconds left. Harris had time to launch a long-range three-point shot but it went off the left-side of the rim, and Matthews controlled the rebound as time expired.
Then, the mad rush by the Edison student body took over the court.
Walker scored a game-high 20 points. Matthews had 13 points and Barlow, who Boyce said was “huge,” scored 12 points. Atencio scored five points before fouling out with 1:52 to play.
“It’s indescribable,” Boyce said of his team’s making a championship final for a second-straight year. “What’s amazing is that we did it with a new group. We only had one returner back [White] and he’s playing this year in a new spot. But the kids worked their butts off, never gave up and now, they get to play for a championship. I’m so happy for them.”