A little more than two weeks into the boys' basketball season and it's already becoming clear that the South Coast League race will be a battle.
That comes as no surprise. The South Coast has always been one of the more competitive leagues in the county. But judging by San Clemente's impressive 76-51 victory over much-improved Fountain Valley in the first round of the Irvine World News Tournament Tuesday night, the league could be even more balanced than usual.
The Tritons were led by 6-foot-5 swingman Mitch Pierce (15 points, seven assists, six steals), who dominated play in the second half at Woodbridge High with his ball-handling in the key.
San Clemente was coming off a 65-62 victory over Corona del Mar Saturday in the championship game of Century tournament. After a slow start in which Pierce, the Century tournament MVP, made only one of his first five shots, he closed out the game by making five of his last six.
Seven players scored for San Clemente and all 10 players who suited up got into the game. Pierce said that is crucial if the Tritons, who were fifth in the South Coast last season, are to compete against top-ranked Mater Dei, fourth-ranked Capistrano Valley and seventh-ranked Trabuco Hills.
"We have lots of depth and when we get to the league we need everyone to contribute," he said. "This game tonight will really help us prepare. It was great for our bench players."
Triton guard Ben Straley led all scorers with 22 points, most coming in a last-quarter flurry. Teammate Joe Tatala had 18 points. Fountain Valley guard Ryan Moreau, on the strength of four second-half three-pointers, led the Barons with 20 points.
The Tritons (5-1), who will get a test tonight against Woodbridge, made 24 of 50 field-goal attempts Tuesday, including five three-pointers.
Fountain Valley (4-2) turned the ball over 23 times, many of them the direct result of San Clemente's aggressive defense.
"We have our work cut out for us in that league, so we have to be as good as we can be defensively," San Clemente Coach Brad Davis said. "If we continue to play this kind of hard defense, we'll be in the game."
San Clemente closed the first half by outscoring the Barons, 11-6, to take a 32-22 lead.
Despite four three-point baskets by Moreau in the first six minutes of the third quarter, the Tritons slowly pulled away to a 17-point lead.