AZUSA — The five Royals on the court trudged back to its bench as the other half of the Felix Event Center at Azusa Pacific University exploded in jubilation.
Their steps were methodical and mechanical — muscle memory moving the body while the mind raced through a dense fog. Their eyes vacant and welling with tears.
From the bleachers came a chant often reserved for times of great joy, yet the message from the student section rang truer than ever.
“We are MP! We are MP!”
A family through and through, but a family that exited the CIF-Southern Section Division 4AA playoffs one step short for the second time in three years.
The Mission Prep boys basketball team crawled back from a double-digit deficit to pull within two points twice in the fourth quarter, but a perfect performance from the free-throw line and a big enough first-half lead delivered top-seeded Crespi the divisional crown, 61-52, on Friday.
“It’s pretty heartbreaking,” said Royals senior guard Quinton Adlesh, whose illustrious prep career will end with two game-high point totals in divisional championship games but no such titles. “This was my No. 1 goal in high school, and it’s not going to happen.
“But I can’t say that we didn’t try, and I can’t say that I don’t love those guys in the locker room, because we gave it everything we had.”
Adlesh finished with 25 points, including 15 in the second half as Mission Prep (24-6) trailed by as many as 18 in the first half before nearly completing a furious fourth-quarter rally.
The second-seeded Royals held the Celts (24-7) without a field goal for the first six minutes of the period, pulling within a possession twice on a 3-pointer and two free throws from senior Brandon Jones.
But Crespi’s leading scorer, De’Anthony Melton, responded with his team’s lone field goal of the quarter, and the Celts made all 19 of their free-throw attempts — 12 in the fourth alone — to keep Mission Prep from winning its first Southern Section title since 1989.
“There were a lot of plays where Crespi got the loose ball or Crespi got the offensive rebound,” Royals coach Terrance Harris said. “The ball didn’t bounce our way today, but I couldn’t be more proud of our fight.”
Six-foot-6 center Mitch Mykhaylov scored a team-high 14 points and grabbed seven rebounds for Crespi, and freshman guard Brandon Williams added 13 points, including nine points and a four-point play in the second quarter to help stake the Celts a 33-19 halftime lead.
“We were a little bit stifled,” in the first half, Adlesh said. “Like I said, championship jitters. They were so young that they were going out playing. I don’t know, Brandon (Jones) and I were probably more nervous than them because they knew they had a couple more years left.”
Adlesh finished 8 of 18 from the floor with seven rebounds, four assists and five turnovers. He was just 2 of 3 shooting in the first half, as Crespi zeroed in on slowing him down and the rest of the Royals struggled to get into an offensive rhythm.
“He’s a heck of a player,” Crespi coach Russell White said. “You’ve got to try and slow him down. When they came back is when he got running.”
Sophomore Kyle Stewart finished with 10 points and seven rebounds, getting the Royals on the board in the first quarter with a put-back dunk off an Adlesh miss after Crespi scored the first eight points of the game. Jones had seven points and seven boards for Mission Prep, which is at its best when its able to get running up and down the floor but was held to just 17 shot attempts in the first half.
“We want to play fast, and they don’t,” said Harris, whose team took 28 shots in the second half and shot 40 percent overall. “They did a good job of changing the tempo. We were able to pick it up in the second half, but they certainly dictated.”
The Royals’ season will continue in the state regional playoffs, and they anticipate knowing by Sunday where and when that tournament will begin.
“I don’t doubt the team will be ready to be fired up and go give some people a fight in states,” Adlesh said. “I want to play with these guys as long as I can. Whatever it takes to keep playing with this team.”