Giants ready for the Final Eight

COS’ Jaylon Lee goes for a layup earlier this season. (Norma Foster/COS Athletics)

COS men’s basketball faces West Los Angeles to begin the Final Eight in Walnut this weekend; Giants aim to go on a run and win their third state championship in program history

COS ATHLETICS – Five weeks ago, a season that began with great promise for College of the Sequoias men’s basketball team hit a crossroads.

After getting off to a 12-2 non conference start, the two-time reigning champion Giants found themselves trailing four teams in the Central Valley Conference standings following a 64-63 loss to Reedley on Jan. 31.

At 4-3 in conference play, Sequoias had lost as many games through the CVC’s first half as it had in the past two seasons combined, and watched a preseason No. 5 state ranking slide to No. 16.

“Ever since that game, our approach really has been trying to be the best version of ourselves for the next 24 hours every single day,” Giants coach Dallas Jensen said. “And it has worked.”

It sure has.

Sequoias (25-5) has won nine straight games heading into the California Community College Athletic Association’s state Final Eight tournament, where it will face West Los Angeles (26-4) in the quarterfinals. Tipoff is scheduled for 5 p.m. March 15 at Mt. San Antonio College in Walnut.

“The thing I’ve seen the most out of that loss is the guys have just taken one day and one game at a time,” Jensen said. “They show up to practice and they want to win the day. They show up to a game and they want to win the day. The boys have bought into that concept, and really just focused on the task at hand.

“I think their focus level has completely shifted. They have a much more mature approach to the game. I think the guys are locked in and trying to do things the right way right now.”

The Giants won their final seven conference games to finish tied with Columbia for a third straight CVC title and earned the No. 3 seed for the Northern California Regionals, where they beat Santa Rosa 77-56 in the second round and Redwoods 70-55 in the finals.

The Giants have held six straight opponents — and 13 on the season overall — to fewer than 60 points per game.

At an average of 61.4 points allowed per game, Sequoias has the second stingiest scoring defense in the state this season behind only West Valley at 61.2. And its 35.6 field goal percentage allowed is first in the state.

“We’ve watched them not only become better individual defenders, but I think the thing that separates this group is their ability to communicate on the defensive end and pick each other up,” Jensen said. “We always talk about the need to communicate on defense. But I tell guys all the time the difference is not just communicating, but it is actually having a conversation. Using names. Being specific. Being loud. Being vocal. Having touches. I think the guys have taken that to heart. They apply it not just in games, but in every single practice. I’m just so pleased and happy with where we’re at defensively, and I hope we can mirror that this weekend and try to make things more difficult for the opponent.”

The Giants are coming off their most clutch defensive performance of the season, when they held Redwoods without a field goal over the final 8 minutes and 22 seconds after the No. 22-seeded Corsairs had tied the score 53-53. Redwoods’ only points during that game-ending stretch were a pair of free throws after Sequoias’ Jaden Haire (Hanford West High) was assessed a technical foul for hanging on the rim following a dunk.

Sequoias forced the Corsairs to miss their final 10 shots and commit four turnovers.

“I was astonished. But at the same time, I know that we’re capable of putting some teams in some droughts on that end of the floor,” Jensen said. “That 8 minute segment is the best we’ve been on defense all year, and really at the most critical time of the year as well. As a coach who values defense and physicality, that was really, really special and fun to watch.”

The NorCal No. 2-seeded Giants will need their best defensive effort against Southern California No. 3 West L.A., which averages 84.6 points per game, 10th best in the state.

The Wildcats, who were co-champions of the Western State South Conference, convert 47.8 percent of their shots from the field overall, and 35.7 percent of their 3-point attempts.

West L.A. is led by Cal State-Bakersfield-committed CJ Hardy, a 6-foot-3 point guard who averages 20.9 points, 5.1 rebounds, 4.9 assists and 2.6 steals per game. The Wildcats also feature 6-9 center Marlan Harris (12.1 points, 8.4 rebounds and 2.6 blocks per game) and 6-5 shooting guard Blake Lander (13.7 points, 4.9 rebounds, 1.2 assists and 1.2 steals per game).

West L.A. is making its third straight appearance in the state’s Elite Eight.

“They have a lot of really talented young men who can put the ball in the basket, are athletic, and like to play defense,” Jensen said. “Their coaching staff obviously has done a great job piecing that team together. They are playing really well right now. They present a lot of challenges.”

Sequoias, which is making its fifth straight trip to the Elite Eight, will be led by CVC co-Most Valuable Player Jose Cuello (Harlem, N.Y.), a 6-1 guard who averages 20.4 points, 5.5 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 1.7 steals per game.

The rest of the Giants’ starting five is expected to include Alex Argandar (Modesto), a 6-2 guard who averages 7.9 points, 5.5 assists, 2.7 rebounds and 1.5 steals; Omari Nesbit (Sacramento), a 6-1 guard who averages 10.9 points, 3.8 rebounds, 2.1 assists and 1.3 steals; Haire, a 6-7 forward who averages 11.7 points, 8.3 rebounds and 1.2 assists; and Jaylon Lee (Las Vegas), a 6-9 post who averages 8.0 points, 9.7 rebounds, 2.1 assists and 2.0 blocks.

Playing supporting roles for Sequoias are Cameron Clark (Gwinnett, Ga.), a 6-9 post who averages 6.7 points, 6.1 rebounds, 1.1 assists and 1.9 blocks; Davis White (Santa Clarita), a 6-5 guard who averages 6.2 points, 2.8 rebounds, and 1.1 assists; Mikey Ficher (Tulare Western), a 5-11 guard who averages 2.1 points, 2.1 assists and 1.8 rebounds; Kion Hayes (Savannah, Ga.), a 6-4 guard who averages 2.5 points and 2.1 rebounds; Samuel Bazunga (Paris, France), a 6-7 forward who averages 2.2 points and 1.7 rebounds; and Nati Asfaw (Las Vegas), a 6-6 forward who averages 0.6 points a game.

“We have to continue to play defense at a really high level and we’ve got to be able to score on the interior and make open shots on the perimeter,” Jensen said. “I don’t think we’ll change a whole lot of what we do. Obviously we’ll adjust some things to take away some of their strengths. But at the end of the day, the game of basketball is pretty simple. We’ve got to be able defend, rebound and make open shots. If we do that, hopefully we can compete and stay in the game and give ourselves an opportunity to win. But no doubt, we’ve got our hands full this week.”

Sequoias is seeking the third state championship in school history. The Giants previously won in 1953 and 1982.

The other state quarterfinal matchups include North No. 3 Yuba (28-2) vs. South No. 2 San Diego City (26-4) at 1 p.m.; South No. 4 Cerro Coso (25-6) vs. North No.1 West Valley (30-0) at 3 p.m.; and North No. 4 Cabrillo (25-5) vs. South No. 1 Fullerton (26-4) at 7 p.m.

San Diego City features a pair of familiar faces to Sequoias fans in former Giants head coach Rusty Smith and assistant Mitch Charlens. Smith, who won a program-record 352 games during his 18 seasons at Sequoias, is an assistant to Charlens with the Knights.

Semifinal games are set for 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. March 16, with the championship scheduled for 3:30 p.m. March 17.

The Mt. SAC main gym — Building 720 — is located at 1100 N. Grand Ave., Walnut.

Tickets are priced at $12 adult general admission and $8 for seniors 60 and older, students with proper ID and children older than 6. Children 6 and younger are free.

For those who can’t make the trip, all games will be streamed on a pay-per-view basis via BAOSA.

All games will be streamed via on a pay-per-view basis. Price is $12 (plus fees) for each day. Archived views are available the days following each round for $15 per day.

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