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Panthers advance to play top seed LCC in quarterfinals

VISTA – For two-and-a-half quarters on Wednesday night, Vista and Eastlake couldn’t be separated. In the second half, however, the eighth-seeded Panthers created just enough separation to beat the ninth-seeded Titans 69-62 in the first round of the Division I playoffs.

“We would go up by seven or eight and then they would go on an 8-0 run,” said Vista head coach Charlie Mercado. “We finally put a run together in the second half to pull away a little bit.”

Eastlake had a 39-34 lead in the third quarter when Vista (20-9) went on a transition offense-led 15-2 run to take control of the game. The Panthers took a five-point lead into a fourth quarter that played very close.

“It was very fast-paced and back and forth,” said Vista guard John Fletcher.

Though Vista couldn’t put away Eastlake (17-9) early in the fourth quarter, they made enough plays to keep the Titans from taking the lead. The Panthers led by one with four minutes left when Sedrick Childress and Eric Miller made threes on back-to-back possessions to give Vista a 60-55 lead.

“We hit the shots and got a couple of big steals down the stretch,” Mercado said.

With 21 seconds left, Eastlake guard Aaron Baltazar made a three-pointer to make it 65-62. But on the ensuing inbounds pass, Titans guard Adrian Tabula committed an intentional foul on Fletcher and the junior guard put the game away by making four straight free throws.

“We needed to win to get to the second round,” Fletcher said. “We’re trying to make the season last as long as we can for the seniors.”

For Vista, the victory earned postseason payback. The Panthers lost 74-49 at Eastlake last season in the Division I quarterfinals.

“This game meant a lot to the returners, because last year we went down there and got hammered by almost 30,” Mercado said. “It was nice to sit at home and have them make the bus ride up to Vista.”

Both Vista and Eastlake switched up defenses throughout the game but each team struggled to contain each other’s playmakers. Fletcher scored a game-high 25 points for Vista and shot 10-for-11 from the free throw line, scoring despite facing an Eastlake defense aimed to shut him down.

“Our key was to slow him down and I thought we did early,” said Eastlake coach Alex Estrada. “When they made that run, he was the one running. He got loose a couple times and made some baskets and that just killed us.”

Childress (18 points) and Miller (16 points) also finished in double figures for Vista. At point guard, the Panthers’ leading scorer Fletcher has been the key to the team’s late-season success.

“He’s just being more aggressive with the ball,” Mercado said. “Our first thing is to go, go, go, and at the beginning of the year he was going out of control. Now he’s under control more and making better decisions with the ball; it’s a sign of his maturing as a player.”

Travis Gardner led Eastlake with 24 points, including 16 in the second half. Baltazar added 19 for the Titans, who suffered their first opening round loss in three seasons.

“When we played these guys last year they were underclassmen, so we knew what we were getting into and we knew what was coming,” Estrada said.

Vista advances to play top-seed La Costa Canyon (24-4) in the Division I quarterfinals on Saturday night. The Panthers are currently on a six-game winning streak.

“I’m glad we have a couple of days to get ready for that one, because we’re going to need it,” Mercado said.

Vista – 69 (16-16-17-20)

Fletcher 25, Childress 18, Miller 16, Walker 6, Thompson 0 (starters) Clark 2, Nyenhuis 2

Eastlake – 62 (17-15-12-18)

Gardner 24, Baltazar 19, Feaster 7, Sinclair 4, Tabula 2 (starters) Garcia 6


Vista forward Sedrick Childress drives baseline past Eastlake guard Brian Panaligan

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