Adam Malik scored 25 points, Christian Nitu grabbed a career-high 16 rebounds and the La Cañada Spartans defeated Santa Clara of Oxnard in front of a home crowd of 1,254. The 55-42 victory advanced the Spartans (27-2) to the final four of the Division III-AA championship tournament.
"This was our best played game all year," Spartan Head Coach Tom Hofman said.
Don't blame Santa Clara Saints' Head Coach Michael Sandoval for lack of innovation. In the first quarter he tried defending La Cañada man-to-man but Spartan Tucker Heaton blew by Anthony Pena, the Saint's quickest player, twice for hoops.
In the second quarter, Sandoval tried a three-two zone, daring the Spartans to hit from the outside. So Malik swished two three-point shots within a 35-second span giving the Spartans a 17-5 lead.
"We kept moving the ball real well," said Hofman.
Sandoval called for a full-court press but that didn't work either. Darren Ho threw an in-bounds pass to Jackson Ridd who threw a perfect 50-foot bullet to a sprinting Malik for a lay-in.
At the beginning of the third quarter Sandoval tried mixing his coverages every possession but Ho hit two consecutive three-point shots to widen the Spartan lead to 30-14.
"Because Malik is so good we had to keep switching defenses to at least try and get something to work," said Sandoval. "But they're just very well coached, very resilient and they take care of the ball. But I'm proud that we attacked in the fourth quarter."
A 9-2 Santa Clara fourth quarter run, ignited by two baskets from Pena, left the Saints trailing 40-31 with four minutes left. But over the next two minutes Nitu shut the door on Santa Clara's 17-11 season by out-leaping three Saints for a tip-in and grabbing three other offensive rebounds.
After the game Malik was shaking his head in wonderment. Not at his own considerable accomplishments — a game-high 25 points including 11 in the fourth quarter — but at point guard Nitu. "Sixteen rebounds for Christian. That's amazing," Malik said.
"Well," Nitu said, "Coach just told me to rebound more. We're all just playing our hearts out now."