By MATT SIEGER
Martinez Gazette Contributor
Martinez, CA – The Alhambra Bulldogs ran into a buzzsaw Thursday night in the form of the Rodriguez (Fairfield) Mustangs’ fast break.
In the opener of the four-team Alhambra Winter Tournament, the Mustangs (2-0) ran their way to a 67-61 victory to advance to the tournament final on Saturday, when they will face the winner of Friday’s contest between Arroyo and Capuchino. The Bulldogs (2-1) will play the loser in the third-place game on Saturday.
Rodriguez was led by guards Darion Johnson and Mekhi Little, who scored 20 and 13 points, respectively. Both are defensive backs on the Mustangs’ football team, and their tenacity on defense, and skill and speed in running the break were the difference makers.
The Mustangs ran the fast break after almost every defensive rebound.
“We have to,” explained Rodriguez coach Nathaniel Rankin. “We’re undersized compared to other teams. You’ve got to find other things that we can exploit teams with. The fast break is something to our advantage. We’ve got to use it.”
They ran it to perfection much of the night, with several of the buckets coming off steals.
“We need to do a better job of taking care of the ball,” said Bulldog Coach Chris Petiti. “They’ve got quick guards, they play their style. We knew going in that was what they were going to do. I knew they were going to be a tough team. I thought it would be a good challenge for us.”
Alhambra held a 16-14 lead after the first quarter, with big men Wyatt Hammer and Brody Eglite combining for the team’s first ten points and Rodriguez getting into some foul trouble.
But Rodriguez switched to a zone defense in the second quarter, helping the Mustangs limit their fouls. They kicked their break into high gear and went on a 12-0 tear to take a 29-20 advantage with 3:10 left in the period. Anthony Wong finally broke the string with a bucket at the 2:50 mark, then added a three-pointer a minute later. The Mustangs led 35-25 at the half.
The teams played pretty evenly in the third quarter, which ended with an unbelievable shooting duel between Aaron Brown of Rodriguez and Alhambra’s Jalen Shepard. With 1:30 left in the period, Brown nailed a two-point shot. Shepard countered with a three-pointer at the 1:15 mark. Not to be outdone, Brown came down and drilled one from behind the arc with 47 seconds on the clock. Ten seconds later, Shepard answered with another three. And — you guessed it — Brown came right back and hit a trey with eight seconds on the clock. Just when you thought it couldn’t get any better, Shepard launched a shot from a good ten feet behind the half-court line which drained the hoop as time expired.
The Bulldogs put on full-court pressure with a little less than five minutes left in the game. It didn’t yield immediate results, as the Mustangs shook off the pressure and Little scored two easy buckets within 12 seconds. But the Bulldogs kept at it and made a remarkable run at the end, with key contributions by Iverson Suisala, Jackson Hilton and Lorenzo Fonseca.
“We’ve got twelve guys who can contribute,” Petiti said of his team’s determination at the finish. “Normally a loss is a sour taste, but at least we feel a little better.”
Shepard led the Bulldogs with 17 points, with Wong and Suisala each contributing 10. Pierce Barnett tossed in 12 points for the Mustangs.