It may have been just a second-round basketball game Tuesday night between dark-horse high schools to some, but to the players of Saugus and California, the matchup at The Master's College was more like the Southern Section 3-A final.
Saugus, which opened the playoffs with a shocking first-round upset over No. 2-seeded Katella, was squaring off against California of Whittier, a team that hadn't reached the playoffs in six years.
The game was close throughout, but when it came to crunch time in the fourth quarter, Saugus got a boost from a shooter who had earlier been a little rusty. Senior forward Rusty Morse scored 12 of his team-high 20 points in the final eight minutes to lead Saugus (19-9) to a 67-63 victory.
Saugus will play Tustin, a 68-54 winner Tuesday over Morningside, in a quarterfinal game on Friday.
With Saugus ahead, 63-61, Greg Weber missed the front end of a one-and-one with 19 seconds remaining. But Morse grabbed the rebound and was fouled.
Morse made his first free throw and missed the second, but grabbed his own rebound and threw in a five-foot shot. He also drew a foul on the shot and his three-point play gave Saugus a 67-61 lead with 13 second left.
"Those plays were just natural instincts on Rusty's part," Saugus Coach John Clark said. "You can't coach something like that."
Morse played the first half with both thighs wrapped to protect a groin injury, but came out in the second half unbandaged.
"I think the bandages coming off was just a psychological thing for Rusty," Clark said. "By the time the second half started, he had already warmed up. The injury was probably more due to fatigue from the Katella game. After that, he took over."
Morse, who scored 12 of Saugus' last 14 points, was dominant in the fourth quarter on defense, too. With 1:41 left, Morse stole the ball and drove the length of the court for a layup, giving Saugus a 59-54 lead. He added another layup seconds later before his three-point play sealed the victory.
"We've had close games all year, and we've won three overtime games," Clark said. "We've got a senior team, and seniors are supposed to play like that at the end of a game."
In the first half, Saugus took a 37-32 lead as John Thomas paced the Centurions with 12 points. But Thomas and Weber picked up three fouls before intermission and missed most of the third quarter.
California (16-7), the first team from the Whitmont League in the past five years to win a playoff game, stayed close early with outside shooting. In the first half, the Condors made 13 of 21 shots, including a 30-footer by Pat Saldana as time expired in the second quarter. Saldana had a game-high 21 points.
In the third quarter, the lead changed hands nine times in a two-minute span. California was ahead, 46-45, when Saugus' Rick Bilek hit a 20-foot shot to give the Centurions the lead for good at 47-46.