SANTA ANA — Rancho Santiago is heading back to UC Irvine with a chance to defend the state title the Dons won there a year ago thanks to a 90-74 victory over Los Angeles City in front of about 1,800 Saturday in Santa Ana.
The margin, as Rancho Santiago Coach Dana Pagett was quick to point out, was misleading.
Rancho Santiago (32-2) trailed, 62-61, with 8:46 left and the Dons looked to be in trouble. The offense had broken down and forward Erik Martin and center Corie Blount had three fouls each.
But Rancho Santiago turned up the intensity and outscored the Cubs, 29-12, the rest of the way.
Blount made a short jumper to put the Dons on top, 63-62, with 8:12 left. Then, reserve guard Eric Kutus pulled off one of the most important plays of the game. He grabbed a long rebound off an L.A. City miss and raced up court alone. Rather than waiting for his teammates, he pulled up and made a three-pointer to put the Dons ahead, 66-62, with 7:10 left.
"It was one of those where I said, 'No don't . . . oh good shot,' " Pagett said.
LaVern Broadnax had consecutive baskets and Erik Martin had a flying one-handed dunk to give Rancho Santiago a 72-65 lead with 5:37 left. From there, Rancho Santiago put it away at the free-throw line.
The Dons made 12 in a row and 15 of their last 17. Rancho Santiago was 20 for 23 shooting in the second half and 28 for 34 on free throws.
Rancho Santiago led, 49-35, at the half and after a quick dunk by Martin, opened a 51-35 lead with about 19 minutes left. LA City then went on a 27-9 run to take the lead, 62-61.
"In the first half," Pagett said, "we were running well and taking good shots. In the second half we ran but started to take bad shots. Then, I yelled at them and we became too tentative. But the guys started to attack the basket again and we were OK."
Blount had a team-high 23 points for Rancho Santiago and Martin had 21 before fouling out with 1:19 left. Glenn Greene finished with 14 points, Broadnax, 12, and Kutus, 11.
Martin's 21 points gives him a Rancho Santiago single-season record 775 points. He had a dunk at 5:53 in the first half to pass Edgar Wickliffe, who scored 758 points in the 1978-79 season.
Blount also took over the career lead in rebounds for Rancho Santiago. He had eight in the game and has 583 in his career. He passed Bobby Angel, (1972-74) who had 581.
Rancho Santiago plays Kings River in the first round Thursday at UC Irvine. Cypress plays Columbia, Chabot plays Compton, and College of the Sequoias plays Long Beach in the other first-round games. All times will be announced next week.