By Steve Breazeale
Trailing Tustin by two points with 12 seconds remaining in their CIF-SS Division 1AA second-round game, the San Clemente boys basketball team got the ball in the hands of Sam Darnold, their leading scorer and most reliable shooter.
Darnold came off a screen and got an open look from 16 feet out, but the ball clanged off the rim as time expired, ensuring Tustin held on for a 61-59.
“We got (Darnold) a great look and we got him a wide open 16-footer,” San Clemente head coach Marc Popovich said. “You tell me we’ve got the game on the line and Sam’s going to line up a 16-footer … I would have signed up for that five hours ago.”
Tustin quickly overcame a seven-point deficit in the third quarter behind senior guard T.J. Shorts’ ability to drive to the paint, create contact and finish. After his teammate George Wilson converted a four-point play in the quarter’s opening minute, Shorts made good on a three-point play opportunity on the Tillers next possession to give his team a 39-38 lead. Tustin would outscore San Clemente 24-14 in the third quarter.
Shorts scored a game-high 24 points on the night and Wilson added 20.
“(Shorts) carved us up … He’s so hard to contain. He’s so good at drawing contact and staying under control,” Popovich said.
Tustin padded their lead until late in the fourth quarter, when Darnold hit a deep 3-pointer to make it a four-point game at 61-57 with just over one minute to go. San Clemente senior Scott Herrod knocked down two free throws and Cole Fotheringham forced a Tustin turnover on the ensuing possession to set up the game’s final dramatic moment.
The Tillers, who have won 19 games in a row, now advance to play Millikan in the postseason’s third round on Feb. 27.
The loss put an end to San Clemente’s 12-game win streak and the team came within one win of tying a school record for most wins in a season.
“It was a tremendous season. It was the best season we’ve had since I’ve been here,” Popovich said. “These guys gave everything they had (tonight). It was a great, great effort and that’s what these guys have given us all year.”