Vista Murrieta Boys Hang Tough, Defeat Cypress, 52-47

Armani Mills drives to the basket for two of his 20 points in Vista Murrieta's victory Friday night. Photos by Daniel Millhouse ...

Armani Mills drives to the basket for two of his 20 points in Vista Murrieta's victory Friday night.
Photos by Daniel Millhouse

By Daniel Millhouse

With a long drive back home due to the closure of the 91 Freeway, the Cypress High School boys basketball players had a lot to think about after they lost to Vista Murrieta 52-47 in the second round of the CIF-SS Division 1A playoffs Friday night.

Once again an underdog, the Broncos of Vista Murrieta (17-11) had a lot on their plate, facing a Centurions team with such a high-powered offense that they often scored more than 70 points a game during the regular season.

"It was defense for us. We had to slow them down," Vista Murrieta coach Andy Rucker said after the game. "They score in the 60s, 70s and 80s, and they’re winning by 20 or 25 points in their games."

Although superb defensive play had held Cypress (20-10) to only 36 points in the first three quarters, Vista Murrieta only had scored 31 points of its own. But something stirred up the Broncos in the fourth quarter, when they scored 21 points behind the surging Armani Mills. The senior was held scoreless in the first half, but scored 15 points in the fourth thanks to hitting three 3-pointers, outscoring the Centurions offense on his own.

"In the fourth quarter, I did my best to keep my momentum (up)," Mills said. "Our coach is telling us to be cautious when we shoot, but I have confidence in my shots so I’m going to shoot it if I’m open because I know they’ll start falling."

The Vista Murrieta defense was on point during the first quarter, holding Cypress to only 10 points. Unfortunately, poor shooting and turnovers held the Broncos to only nine points of their own. Cypress gained momentum at the start of the second quarter, going on a 7-0 run in the first three minutes, led by junior Myles Jones, who scored five of those points.

The Broncos' defense held tough behind senior Marcus Gonzalez (scoring at right). With a minute and a half left in the quarter, Gonzalez blocked a short jumper by Cypress’ Cameron Paige, which led to a fast break. Only a minute later, Gonzalez picked off a pass by the Centurions’ Jones and took the lead on his own fast break. Fouled, he was able to sink both free throws and keep the score close at 21-19 in favor of Cypress at halftime.

The Centurions woke up in the third quarter and scored 15 behind their team leader, Brad Belshe, who scored eight points in the quarter.

"That kid (Belshe) is averaging 20 plus a game," Rucker said when asked if his defense had keyed on any of the Centurions’ players. "I knew he was good, I know he was skilled, but he’s even better than I thought."

With two minutes left in the third quarter, Vista Murrieta tried to energize the home crowd with the same out of bounds alley-oop play they ran in the last game to Dwayne Johnson. Unfortunately, the pass sailed too high (below). This helped lead to a 6-0 run by Cypress in the final minutes, making the score 36-31 Cypress after three.

Two early fourth-quarter turnovers due to traveling swung some of the momentum back toward Vista Murrieta. A 3-pointer by Mills and a contested layup by Nate Duran gave Vista Murrieta the lead with just over five minutes left in the game.

Belshe stepped up, scoring nine points of his own in the fourth and tying up the game with three minutes left on a fast break layup. Less than a minute later, Paige put Cypress up by two after hitting a short jump shot.

Undeterred, Mills tied the game back up at 46 when he hit a 3-pointer from the corner with 1:25 left in the game. Mills hit another 3-pointer with 50 seconds remaining to give his team a 49-46 lead and a massive energy boost. The hometown fans cheered so hard, the referee’s whistle was nearly impossible to hear.

With 13 seconds left in the game, Cypress was down 50-47. Vista Murrieta doubled Belshe and forced Cypress senior Noah Maschhaupt to attempt a 3-pointer. Maschhaupt missed, but Belshe grabbed the rebound and dribbled the ball back beyond the arc. He then attempted a 3-point shot of his own, but Belshe was rejected and the ball went out of bounds as he tried to regain possession of it.

With 7.8 seconds left, Mills was fouled and put on the line. He sank both free throws to put the nail in the coffin in the Centurions' season.

Notable Vista Murrieta performances included Mills’ 20 points, 12 of which came off of 3-pointers, and Duran’s 12 points scored. Belshe was the only double digit scorer for Cypress, leading his team with 27 points.

Vista Murrieta will continue play on Tuesday at home against the Indians of John Burroughs High School (21-7) in the quarterfinals of the CIF-SS Div 1A playoffs.

On Saturday night at 7 p.m., the Vista Murrieta girls basketball team (25-2) will battle against the Wolverines of Harvard-Westlake High School (19-8) in an Open Division game at Vista.

Vista Murrieta guard Camryn Jones prepares to pass to teammate Nate Duran for a layup.

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