BBK: Dons fight off illness and Buena for 25th win

It was a struggle all night for Bolden Brace and the Santa Barbara High boys basketball team.

The Dons’ leading scorer was playing while feeling under the weather, and the team was in a tight battle against a red-hot Buena team in the Channel League finale Thursday night. Brace, however, found a way to spark Santa Barbara to its ninth straight win, scoring 19 points and grabbing 13 rebounds in a 60-52 decision at J.R. Richards Gym.

Santa Barbara will enter next week’s CIF playoffs as champions of the Channel League with records of 7-1 in league and 25-4 overall. Buena finishes the regular season at 4-4, 19-7. The Bulldogs will play San Marcos in a playoff for second place and the league’s other automatic CIF playoff berth on Friday at Buena.

With the score tied a 38-38 near the end of the third quarter, Brace and the Dons pulled off a pair of spectacular plays to take the lead for good. Brace was tightly guarded above the free-throw line and the shot clock was winding down. He threw the ball off the backboard, chased it down and scored on a layup for the go-ahead score. He then broke up a Buena pass at the other end, tapped it to Chris Givens and raced down court on a 2-on-1 break. Givens tossed an alley-oop pass and Brace mustered enough strength to tip it in for a 42-38 lead at the end of the third quarter

Max Henderson and Givens capitalized on a pair of Buena turnovers at the start of the fourth quarter and Matt Gilligan buried a 3-pointer to open up a 49-40 advantage.

Buena, which hadn’t lost a game in the second round of league play, cut it to 49-44 on an offensive rebound by Taylor Sturgeon (16 points) and an Andrew Willis layup before Brace came up big again. He scored inside and then stole the inbound pass, which resulted in a dagger-piercing 3-pointer by Henderson for a 54-44 lead.

“Max is having a great year, he’s just having a great year,” Santa Barbara coach David Bregante said. “What can I say about him? He’s been the surprise of the year. We didn’t expect him to play this well; how many times has he hit big shots?”

Henderson made all four of his 3-point attempts and scored 16 points for the three-time league champion Dons, while Gilligan and Chris Givens scored seven apiece.

Santa Barbara trailed 15-14 after the first quarter and the scored was tied at 26 at halftime. Buena led 35-32 before the Dons went on a 6-0 run. The Bulldogs, however, tied it on a 3-pointer by Spencer Tilkens.

Bregante wasn’t surprised his team had a hard time in the game.

“I don’t like making excuses but Bo is really sick and Ben Clay is sick as a dog,” he said. “We’re not 100 percent and guys showed some real heart tonight playing through it.”

Bregante raved about the play of Gilligan off the bench.

“He’s just dynamite; he just hustles and plays his heart out,” Bregante said. “He’s a senior and he really stepped up big. We needed him tonight.”

Santa Barbara will learn its CIF playoff draw on Sunday.