BBK: Owls give St. Bernard’s a tough battle

St. Bernard’s had the advantage in size, speed and quickness. But the heart of the Laguna Blanca basketball team kept it in the game against the athletic Vikings in the CIF Division 5A playoff opener.

Sharp-shooting Spenser Wyatt knocked down back-to-back 3-pointers early in the fourth quarter to pull the Owls within eight points and they got as close as seven in the last 1:30. But St. Bernard hung on and advanced to the second round with a 58-50 win on Wednesday night at Merovick Gym.

“I’m really proud of our kids because we had a chance to win the game,” Laguna Blanca coach Sal Rodriguez said. “We make our free throws and cut down on our turnovers …”

The Owls struggled at the line, making just 9 of 23. They also committed 23 turnovers, most of them coming against St. Bernard’s high-pressure full-court press.

“We worked on that press. We did OK in the beginning,” said Rodriguez.

St. Bernard’s coach Mitch Runco said the press was a key factor in the win.

“Our goal was to speed them up,” he said. “They did a great job in their zone, they forced to take and settle for a lot of jump shots, so we had to figure out a way to offset and play at the kind of speed that we wanted to play.

“When we went to our press, it sped them up a little bit and it played in our favor. And we were able to sneak away with it.”

Rob Fuller, a lightning-quick point guard, paced the Vikings attack with 20 points and several steals.

“He’s the head of the snake for us,” Runco said of the junior. “He’s a first-team all-league guy in the Del Rey League, which is about as tough a league there is.”

The Vikings (11-17) finished in last place in the league at 0-8. The league’s top three teams — Bishop Montgomery, Cantwell-Sacred Heart and Cathedral — all were picked into the 16-team CIF Open Division bracket.

“I was telling everybody in town: of all the teams in Santa Barbara, we got the worst draw. It’s a crazy draw,” said Rodriguez.

But the Owls (12-7), champions of the Condor League, kept hanging around. Jose Espinosa and Wyatt hit 3-pointers during a 9-2 run early in the second quarter to give Laguna Blanca an 18-14 lead. St. Bernard’s turned up the defensive pressure and scored on three straight fast breaks — one resulting in a three-point play — to regain the lead 21-18 with 2:20 left in the second quarter.

The Vikings’ pressure created more problems for Laguna Blanca in the third quarter and they expanded their lead to 44-30 after a three-point play by Fuller with 1:46 left. Espinosa fouled out on the play. He scored 12 points.

Wyatt hit two free throws and Stephen McCaffery followed with a basket to give Laguna Blanca a shot of momentum heading in the fourth quarter.

In the final stanza, Wyatt hit back-to-back 3-pointers made three free throws after being fouled while shooting a trey. Atty Roddick buried a three- and a two-pointer and McCaffery scored inside to make it a 57-50 game. After St. Bernard missed a layup, the Owls had a chance to cut the deficit to five but couldn’t deliver.

Wyatt finished with a game-high 22 points.

“He was awesome,” said Rodriguez.

The Owls coach appreciated how his players battled.

“I told the kids, ‘I’m very proud of you; keep your heads up. You did well, you had a chance to win the game,’” he said.