With Irvine High School's first CIF basketball playoff berth in its 10-year history seemingly secured, El Toro senior Jeff Stone took it away Saturday night at University High.
Stone scored eight of his game-high 22 points in the fourth quarter, including two free-throws with 21 seconds left to give the Chargers a 63-61 win over the Vaqueros and a playoff berth as the South Coast League's third-place representative.
The two teams were forced into a playoff game after finishing league play with identical 7-5 records.
Stone's winning free throws capped an El Toro comeback that rallied the Chargers (8-5, 14-11) from 13 points back early in the fourth quarter and a seven-point deficit with 3:01 remaining to play.
Sophomore Eric Speaker got El Toro rolling when he scored on a layup to pull the Chargers within three, 61-58, with 2:22 remaining. After a quick Irvine turnover, center Corey Wayland added a free throw for El Toro to cut the Vaquero lead to 61-59. Then Stone hit a 10-foot shot in the lane to tie the score with 1:49 left.
From there, the two teams both missed free-throw opportunities before Stone converted his to give the Chargers the lead, 63-61.
Irvine had two final chances to tie the game, but guard Mike Herring missed a jumper with 15 seconds left and Scott Tamura's follow of Mike Moceri's miss rolled off the rim at the buzzer.
"It's just great to be back in the playoffs after missing them last year" said El Toro Coach Tim Travers during the victory celebration. "You'll never see a group of kids hustle the way these did tonight. They went after every lose ball, got a hand on every rebound and played to win. And when you do that, it's hard to lose.
"In the second and third quarters, though, they (Irvine) were shoving the ball down our throats, and I appealed to our team's pride. I told them if they kept playing they way they were, they would keep getting it shoved down their throats. Fortunately, the kids responded."
Another key in El Toro's comeback was Travers' decision to press the Vaqueros in the fourth quarter.
"When we played them before, I saw that our 1-2-1-1 press bothered them a little bit," Travers said. "It's the type of thing that can get you caught up in a hurry or down in a hurry, and luckily it worked for us tonight. We got some steals and turned things around.
"Also, our bench did an outstanding job for us. Steve Cuttrell came in when Corey fouled out and did a good job, as did Jim Hargy."
Along with Stone's 23 points, Johnson had 19 points for the Chargers (eight in the fourth quarter), Wayland had 9 and Speaker added seven, all in the final quarter.
Shawn Patchell led the Vaqueros (7-6, 15-13) with 19 points, and teammates Herring and John Littler added 18 and 15 points, respectively.
EL TORO (63)--Tobey 6, Johnson 19, Wayland 9, Speaker 7, Stone 22.
IRVINE (61)--Raye 4, Littler 15, Tamura 1, Herring 18, Oden 4, Patchell 19.