His team had just gotten done playing, but San Luis Obispo High boys basketball coach John Jensen wanted the Tigers to get right back in a gym.
It wasn’t for a full-fledged practice — only free-throw shooting. San Luis Obispo made just 12 of 26 shots from the charity stripe Friday afternoon to fall 53-41 to Sylmar on Challenge Night at the first day of the 11th annual Mission Prep Christmas Classic on Cowitz Court.
“I don’t understand it,” Jensen said. “I don’t know why we can’t make them — if it’s mental or what. We’re going to go back (to San Luis Obispo High) right now and work on free throws for an hour. That cost us the game.”
In the second quarter alone, the Tigers missed all six of their free throws as the Spartans (1-4) outscored them 17-2 in the period. In what Jensen called “probably (their) best start so far this season,” the Tigers (3-4) led 10-4 early but trailed 23-12 at halftime after struggling to beat a press.
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“After the first quarter, we decided we needed to pick up the pace,” Sylmar coach Bort Escoto said. “Even if we were going to give up layups, I told the kids, ‘That’s going to be part of the strategy. Give up a layup, take the ball out and go the other way,’ because we were going to create a lot of pace that was in our favor.”
The Tigers fought back from an eventual 15-point hole, though, cutting the lead to 29-22 on a conventional 3-point play by power forward Sean Mullen with about two minutes left in the third. After Sylmar again distanced itself, going up 39-27, a pair of Josh James free throws with just under four-and-a-half minutes remaining trimmed the margin to 39-33 before Sylmar pulled away down the stretch.
Jensen said he was encouraged by “signs” of what could’ve been quite the comeback against the Los Angeles City Section team.
The Tigers graduated 10 seniors from last year’s co-PAC 7 league champion, including its top two scorers in Shane Kennedy (now playing at San Francisco State) and Julian Demalleville (Monterey Peninsula College).
League foes Arroyo Grande (8-2), Righetti (5-2), Atascadero (7-3) and Paso Robles (6-4) — all of whom returned more experienced talent on paper — have all been impressive to varying degrees early in nonleague play.
“We are young,” Jensen said. “I would say our team is a dangerous team this year. We could upset anybody if we play right. I think a lot of people are counting us out this year, but I haven’t. I think we can still contend.”
Mullen, a 6-foot-6 junior, led the Tigers with 15 points. Derek Inman added seven, and James six. Alex Moreno led Sylmar with 16, while Doyle Jones contributed 12.
Two brackets open today
The Challenge Night pits teams from the California-based elite division bracket (including San Luis Obispo, Mission Prep, St. Joseph and Pioneer Valley) against teams from the national division bracket (which, in addition to Sylmar, showcases a handful of highly touted prep squads from across the country).
The latter group is highlighted by Taft of Woodland Hills, which is ranked in the Top 25 nationally by USA Today, ESPN Rise and MaxPreps. Taft is led by Bryce Jones, a 6-5 guard who has committed to USC, and DeAndre Daniels, a 6-8 forward bound for Texas.
Nine current NBA players have played in the Classic over the years.
“This tournament has always been one of the better tournaments in California at this time of year,” Escoto said. “I even tell some of the schools in Los Angeles that they need to come up here because it’s a quality event.
“It’s good to come out here and see a variety of teams playing each other from different divisions.”
The Classic will run through Tuesday. Today’s play in the elite bracket will feature a 4:30 p.m. matchup between San Luis Obispo and St. Joseph, and a 6 p.m. matchup between Mission Prep and Rio Americano. Taft will take on Cathedral of Los Angeles at 7:30 p.m. That game will be followed by a dunk contest.
In other Challenge Night games Friday:
Cathedral of Los Angeles 51, Mission Prep 47;
Campbell Hall (North Hollywood) 74, Mission Prep 44;
Taft (Woodland Hills) 80, Eldorado (Las Vegas) 31;
Ballou (Washington, D.C.) 90, St. Joseph 56;
Pasadena 55, Campolindo 45
In the Royals’ second game, Kevin Laird hit Art Lane underneath the basket with a no-look pass to cut the Vikings’ lead to 36-29 with about four minutes left in the third.
Campbell Hall, though, closed the game on a 38-15 run. Austin McBroom had a game-high 21 points in the win. Kenneth Smith and James Johnson added 13 and 12, respectively, with the 6-7 Johnson throwing down three dunks down low.
Laird led the Royals with 12 points, and Sam Cowitz added nine.
In the first game against Cathedral, an 18-8 first-quarter deficit did in the Royals.
“They got off to a really good start against us,” Mission Prep coach Terrance Harris said. “It took us a minute to get adjusted to what they were doing and how to guard their big guys. Once we did that, we were fine.”
Laird drained a trio of 3-pointers for the Royals, who couldn’t hold on to a late 47-46 lead. Laird finished with a game-high 16 points. Bill Sukoski added 10 in defeat, with Cowitz chipping in eight.
Frankie Eteuati, a 6-9 forward, led the Phantoms with 15, and Andrew Clark and Sergio Leon each had 11.
Edison of Fresno 51 Pioneer Valley 32
Alston Doulphus and Jereol Walker each had 12 points for Edison. Jordan Jones had 11 to lead the Panthers, who were outscored 16-0 in the second quarter.
Washington Prep of Los Angeles 64, Birmingham 41
Washington pulled away with a 37-12 second half as Michaelyn Scott finished with 25 points.
Corey Randle led Birmingham with 15 points, all of which came from 3-point territory.