Dons take down Heptot-less Chargers in packed gym

Santa Barbara’s boys basketball squad certainly didn’t look like a playoff-caliber team back on December 4th.

The Dons had just been drubbed by Dos Pueblos, 71-39, in the Simi Valley Tournament, and coach Chris Hantgin called DP the front-runner for the Channel League title along with Ventura.

“I’d like to think we can compete with them when we’re at full strength, but I don’t know if we’ll ever be at full strength,” he said.

How odd, then, that Santa Barbara completed its regular-season sweep of the Chargers Thursday night with a 44-37 win in front of a packed house at J.R. Richards Gym.

Now it’s the Chargers (11-15, 2-6) who are in a state of uncertainty, awaiting Sunday’s playoff brackets to see if they’ll receive an at-large bid into the postseason. Considering their biggest league loss of the year was only seven points, their case has some clout to it.

The Dons (12-10, 5-2), meanwhile, came into the game with second place in the Channel League already wrapped up.

Roberto Nelson had 17 points, Spencer Thomas had 12 and Bryson Lloyd added nine for the Dons, who got a big shot from Kyle Leonard to push the lead to seven with two minutes remaining. The score had been stuck at 34-30 for nearly four minutes when Leonard pulled up and swished a baseline trey to make it 37-30, sending the crowd wild.

“I pretty much had to hit one. I had a pretty bad game tonight, to be honest,” said Leonard. “”Roberto (Nelson) hit me with a nice pass and I had to come through after a rough game so it felt real nice.”

It would be the only points of the night for the speedy Leonard, the Dons’ shortest player. But it was three more points than DP got from its tallest player, six-foot-9 Malik Heptot, who was in street clothes for the game due to illness.

“We beat them last time with Malik, so when we saw he wasn’t dressed we thought it would be easier, but it ended up being pretty rough. So, yeah, I’m glad he wasn’t playing,” said Leonard with a grin.

Not having the big man to revolve around presented a tough challenge for the Chargers, who were forced to put Evan Muñoz down low to guard the bruising Lloyd, leaving Robert Vickers and Jay Larinan to split the duties on Santa Barbara standouts Nelson and Thomas. DP made some costly turnovers down the stretch, many on passes that wound up out of bounds.

It’s a bit harder to move the ball without a 6-9 big man in the middle to throw it up to.

“In the third quarter we had some turnovers that hurt us and we didn’t shoot free throws very well. When you don’t do those two things, it leads to a not-very-successful night,” said coach Joe Zamora. “The one thing I will give my kids is that they didn’t quit.”

Santa Barbara opened the game with an 8-0 run as the Chargers didn’t get on the board until Larinan hit a free throw wth 3:23 left in the first. The Dons couldn’t find the hot shooting from long range against San Marcos on Tuesday, however, and the Chargers charged back and went into halftime losing 18-17.

DP took the lead on three different occasions in the third, but the Dons wouldn’t allow the Chargers to stay ahead for long.

Lloyd picked up a 3-point play in the final minute of the third and Nelson converted a pair of his own in the fourth, the last coming just after Leonard’s big shot to ice the game.

Seldom-used junior reserve Matt McClenathan got in the game in the fourth quarter and made some key contributions for DP, scoring five points and grabbing a pair of blocks, but it wasn’t enough to push the Chargers back over the top.

“It was great getting to play in this rivalry game, especially after basically not getting to play all year,” said McClenathan. “We found out about Malik right before the game, so we knew a lot of guys were going to contribute. It’s just too bad it was a tough loss.”

The Dons will now wait until Sunday to see where their postseason party will begin.

The Chargers are just hoping to be invited.

SANTA BARBARA 44, DOS PUEBLOS 37

DOS PUEBLOS — McClenathan 5, Muñoz 5, Miranda 2, Hamilton 1, Larinan 13, Vickers 11. Totals 9 7-14 37.

SANTA BARBARA — Thomas 12, Uribe 3, Lloyd 9, Nelson 17, Leonard 3. Totals 7 16-22 44.

Dos Pueblos….8  10  10  16 — 37

Santa Barbara….3  14  8  12 — 44

3-point goals — DP 4 (McClenathan, Muñoz, Larinan, Vickers), SB 4 (Thomas, Uribe, Nelson, Leonard).

Total fouls —DP 19, SB 14.

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