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Wildcats hang on to advance to American Division semifinals

CARLSBAD – Dressing only seven players because of injury, El Camino had just enough in the ESPN iScore Holiday Classic American Division quarterfinals. The No. 2 Wildcats held off Los Angeles Windward for a 73-71 win Tuesday at La Costa Canyon High.

“It gives us confidence to play a team like that and beat them. Even with seven players we went out and got the win,” said El Camino center Mookie Beard. “We got tired but we just had to fight through it.”

Ahead by eight with a minute to play, El Camino (12-1) saw its lead shrink to two with 27 seconds left when Windward guard Wesley Saunders hit a pair of free throws. After a foul, Beard hit one of two free throws to make it 72-69 and after Windward missed a three-pointer, forward Travis Pao Pao sank a free throw to put the game out of reach.

“It was a challenge trying to keep guys fresh,” said El Camino head coach Ray Johnson. “Some guys were tired at the end and they almost caught up to us.”

Johnson said fatigue caused mental errors and missed free throws in the final minute that nearly cost El Camino the game. Until that point, the Wildcats were largely in control against one of the elite small school teams in the state.

“We have to make free throws, but legs were tired and I think that was a big part of it,” Johnson said.

El Camino used defense and quick ball movement to build a 14-4 lead out of the gates. The Wildcats led by seven at the end of the first quarter and had a 33-24 lead at halftime, constantly switching up defensive schemes on Windward in an effort to limit their star Saunders.

“They had two great players, so we Mickey Moused them a little bit. We did some different things to them,” Johnson said.

The Wildcats tripped up Windward by switching in and out of straight man-to-man, diamond-and-one and triangle-and-two zones. It took Windward (6-5) a whole half to solve the switching fronts.

“We had to try and stop Wesley Saunders – their big time man – and the zone helped us,” Beard said.

El Camino went on a 9-3 run at the beginning and end of the third quarter, absorbing a Windward run in between. The Wildcats led by 14 headed into the fourth quarter and maintained that lead until Windward made its late run.

Dayton Boddie led the Wildcats with a game-high 24 points, with Beard (15 points) and senior guard Chris Gorman (12) also finishing in double figures. Nick Stover and Jordan Wilson led Windward with 18 points apiece, with Saunders adding 12.

El Camino advances to the American Division semifinals on Wednesday where they will meet Francis Parker (8-3) at 7 p.m. at La Costa Canyon High. The No. 5 Mavericks (11-1) host North Las Vegas Canyon Springs (12-0) in the other semifinal.

“I think we’re good enough to win our division,” Beard said. “We just have to keep playing defense and let our offense come to us.”

Without Johnson last year, El Camino struggled early before reaching the Division I finals and losing to Etiwanda in the first round of the state playoffs. With their legendary coach back at the helm, the Wildcats are off to a stellar start.

“A lot of those kids played for me before I left, so they know what I expected,” Johnson said. “They expected to be good, they have worked hard and so far it’s paying off.”

El Camino – 73 (15-18-26-14)

Boddie 24, Gorman 18, Beard 15, Snow 9, Pao Pao 7 (starters)

Windward – 71 (8-16-21-26)

Stover 18, Wilson 18, Saunders 12, Dawson 9, Gueno 5 (starters) Toskovic 8, Silverman-Lloyd 3

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