Sometimes, a gamble can result in a large loss. Or, a huge payoff.
Helix High, the school that NBA Hall of Famer Bill Walton made famous, had seen Immanuel erase a 15-point deficit and take a four-point lead midway through the third quarter of Saturday night’s CIF Southern California Regional Division IV boys basketball final.
Highlanders coach John Singer called timeout before things got worse. He rolled the dice, switching from a man-to-man to a zone defense.
It paid immediate dividends as Immanuel junior guard Nate Kendricks, who finished with 32 points, made just one field goal the rest of the way and Helix rallied with a 29-point fourth quarter to win 80-69.
The fifth-seeded Eagles were seeking their first-ever trip to the state championships. Instead, No. 2-seed Helix (31-5) advanced to its inaugural state final.
“When they changed defenses, we just didn’t adjust,” Eagles coach Nate McClurg said. “Nate had a great game; he stepped up as a first-year point guard. He has a killer instinct.”
Even Helix coaches and players were impressed as the 6-foot-1 Kendricks, nephew of NFL linebackers Mychal and Eric Kendricks, hit the long ball or drove inside despite intense defensive pressure.
“We knew that number 12 was a great player – he’s damn great,” said Singer, who has guided the Highlanders for 32 years.
Immanuel, which had its 11-game winning streak snapped, finished 23-9 as a more-balanced Helix team used four three-point plays in the fourth quarter to open a 70-58 lead. Like Kendricks earlier, Dylan Lee caught fire for Helix in the fourth quarter, collecting 14 of his team-high 22 points.
The Eagles simply could not find the same magic that allowed them to come back from way behind against No. 1-seeded Burbank to make their sixth SoCal Regional final.
Cal State Bakersfield-bound Darrin Person Jr. added 20 points and nine rebounds muscling his way inside the taller Helix defense.
Immanuel, the Central Section Division IV champion, made its third straight long trip in the playoffs, 330 miles to La Mesa. McClurg said he had no problem with the new regional playoff format that gives the higher seeds in Divisions II-V a home game through the regional final. But he isn’t pleased with the way the divisions are set.
“It was supposed to be based on competitive equity but different sections do it differently and until we all do it the same, we won’t be on the same plain,” McClurg said.
Helix played D-II in the San Diego Section playoffs and won that championship. The Highlanders have 22 straight since 6-9 transfer Miles Norris got eligible. Norris scored 19 points and had 12 rebounds against Immanuel.
McClurg said Helix probably should have been at least a Division I team. “Eventually, we’ll all figure it the same way.”
Steve Brand covers high school sports in the San Diego area: email@example.com