FRESNO — It seemed only appropriate that the El Camino College basketball team's defense should be the deciding factor in the state championship game in a building where defense is the name of the game.
The Warriors turned back San Jose City College, 37-35, Monday night in Fresno's Selland Arena where Boyd Grant and the Fresno State Bulldogs have built their reputation by playing tenacious defense.
El Camino, which trailed 22-20 at half time, scored the first 10 points of the second half and was never caught.
A number of factors helped the Warriors to their second state title in five years: the coaching of Paul Landreaux, who guided his team to a 33-1 record and 24 consecutive wins to end the season; the playmaking of point guard Mark Wade, the tournament's most valuable player; the play of sophomore Greg Hill and freshman forward Dwayne Lewis, who were named to the all-tourney squad; and the efforts of reserve center John Wyatt, which Landreaux called "monumental."
However, the overwhelming element in the Warriors' title victory was a stingy defense that led the state in fewest points allowed per game at 51.4.
In one stretch, El Camino held San Jose, which had come into the game riding a 17-game winning streak, without a field goal for 19 minutes and 22 seconds--just short of an entire half of basketball.
The Jaguars' leading scorers, Arnell Jones and Curtiss Bradley, came into the contest averaging 23.3 and 18.3 points per game, respectively, for the tournament. The El Camino defense reduced Jones to 11 points and Bradley to 14.
And it was a trapping Warrior defense that forced Bradley into a traveling violation when he attempted to tie the game on a turnaround jumper with three seconds remaining.
Landreaux appeared weary but satisfied after the contest.
Disappointed by Crowd
"It feels pretty damn good," Landreaux said. "We didn't play great tonight but well enough to win and that's what really matters.
"I just wish more people would have come out to watch the tournament, like they do in the East. It's a shame that people won't support community college athletics out here."
A mere 300 spectators witnessed the game, one quarter of the crowd that turned out for Friday's opening round of action. It didn't help that the home team (Fresno City College) and the team that brought along the largest following (San Joaquin Delta) were eliminated in the first round.
El Camino began the tournament Friday by beating overmatched but scrappy Ohlone College, 70-54. The Warriors, who led 23-11 at one point, held only a 25-21 half time advantage.
After Ohlone scored the first basket of the second half to close to within 2 points, El Camino eventually built up a 22-point lead to coast home.
In the quarterfinals, Landreaux's troops got their biggest scare from a fired-up Sacramento City College team, which the Warriors had whipped by 21 points in last season's state tournament.
El Camino trailed by 10 points with 10 minutes to play. Starting center Darnell Jermany and sixth man Todd Porter had fouled out and leading scorers Hill and Lewis were playing with four fouls.
However, with Wade and Lewis leading the way, the Warriors scratched back and outscored Sacramento 25-8 in the last 9 1/2 minutes to win going away, 72-65.
Afterward, Landreaux shook his head and tried to explain his team's performance.
"We've been a team that doesn't play well until the pressure's on," Landreaux said. "We don't have that killer instinct until our backs are to the wall.
"We've had to come from behind near the end of games four or five times this year. I think the kids keep seeing that they're No. 1 and think that everyone's going to roll over for us."
Fouls Hurt Long Beach
Long Beach, which had aided El Camino by knocking off highly regarded San Francisco and Taft, was the Warriors' semifinal opponent.
The Vikings, the only team to defeat the Warriors this season, took their only lead of the game, 3-2, two minutes into the contest. From there, it was all El Camino's way.
The Warriors led 28-18 at halftime and when Long Beach scoring star Derek Jones fouled out four minutes into the second half, the issue was decided. Jones was held to his lowest total of the year, 5 points, and El Camino romped into the final with a 66-51 rout.
"I had a completely sleepless night last night," Landreaux said after the win over Long Beach. "I've never been so nervous before a game, especially after watching Derek Jones destroy Taft last night. I didn't know what to expect.
"But after Jones picked up those four quick fouls, it really perked the team up. This was really the championship game for us."
Top Honor for Wade
Tournament officials still insisted, however, that the Warriors play San Jose, and El Camino put one more win together to clinch the state crown.