The season looked lost for the City College of San Francisco’s men’s basketball team. Down 15 points to Citrus College in the second half, after playing lackluster basketball for 30 minutes, they couldn’t shoot, couldn’t find rhythm and couldn’t pass.
“They had three great shooters and we actually did a good job of covering them but they had two guys who I would call ‘half shooters’ that caused us trouble. They shot and played out of their minds and really stepped up for Citrus,” head coach Justin Labagh said.
It was not unfamiliar territory for Labagh. In the 2018 semifinals against Cerritos College, the Rams were down 73-60 but came back to win 89-83 on their way to a state title. On Saturday, City College once again pulled off the comeback, coming back from down 15 points to engineer a 82-76 overtime win, and advance yet again to the state title game, where they’ll have a chance to repeat as champions.
“The guys were so resilient, they played real hard,” Labagh said. “At halftime we regrouped. They know they can beat any team and they showed that. I am so proud of them.”
The Rams thrive when they move the ball but early against Citrus, they relied too much on isolations. The isolation’s failed more often than not and for the second game in a row the Rams struggled from the foul line, hitting only 1-of-5 during the first half.
Ten minutes in, the Owls were up 20-10, and would continue to improve on that lead throughout the first half. The Rams kept collapsing too hard on Citrus players every time they dribbled into the lane, allowing open kick-out threes for the Owls, who made seven during the first half.
Malcolm Johnson, the Ram’s star sophomore and CCCAA Co-player of the year for North, got into the foul trouble early. City College missed him on offense but needed him even more for defense. Without Johnson, the Rams missed their best perimeter defender, and Citrus took advantage.
The Owls were up 38-23 by halftime and it was looking like City College would be sent home from the playoffs.
“Coaching wise, we’ve been in this situation before,” Labaugh said. “We’ve been down like this on the road.”
The second half started slow for City College, as Labaugh and his staff adjusted the rotation. The Citrus lead continued to hover between 10 and 15 points during the first ten minutes of the half and the problems that plagued the Rams during the first half kept cropping up.
Then, a big three by sophomore wing Austin McCullough — like Winston, a former Cal Golden Bear — broke the Owls’ serve and cut the lead to 51-43.
The triple by McCullough — who finished with 12 points on 5-of-12 shooting, and 2-of-2 from three — kick-started the comeback, but freshman forward Emeka Udenyi, who was subbed in right after the three, was an instant catalyst. He began by getting an assist on a Johnson bucket. He then scored back-to-back baskets, cutting the Citrus lead to four, with the score at 57-53 with eight minutes left. Udenyi ended up leading his team in scoring, with 16 points on an efficient 8-for-10 shooting while grabbing seven rebounds.
“Emeka controlled the game,” Labagh said. “He was so intimidating, he probably earned himself a Division 1 scholarship.”
Then, the Owl’s offense cooled off. With Johnson on the floor, the Rams defense guarded the perimeter effectively and Citrus was unable to make the threes that fueled its early run.
Johnson finished the game with a double-double, scoring 15 points on 6-for-7 shooting with 12 rebounds, and was key in the comeback.
“I challenged Malcolm at halftime,” Labagh said. “He is going UC Davis and I said ‘Is this your last game?’ He responded ‘I have one more.’ He played hard after that.”
With two minutes left, the Rams finally regained the lead, the first time since the game’s opening minutes, when sophomore forward Austin Harris nailed a turnaround jump shot to put City College up 68-66.
With eight seconds left in the game, City College was up 71-70 and had a chance to put the game away with Winston on the line for two free throws. He made one. The Owls’ Josh Caston — who earlier this season scored 48 points, but was held to only eight on Saturday by the Rams — got the ball and pushed it up court for a basket, tying the game at 72-72 and sending it to overtime.
“We should have won the game in regulation,” Labagh said.
Johnson dominated in the extra period. He scored the first basket when he grabbed an offensive rebound and forced his way back up for the bucket. He scored the following bucket when Winston drove hard into the lane as multiple defenders collapsed, then kicked to Johnson open underneath.
Johnson also racked up a steal, and scored another basket in the final minute of OT thanks to an incredible pass by Udenyi. Udenyi had the ball on an iso and performed a spin move in the lane that threw off the defense and then passed to Johnson, who scored and put his team up by four. Udenyi would score the game’s final basket.
The Rams will now play in the CCCAA state championship on Sun., March 17 at 1 p.m. against Fullerton College. Fullerton beat Fresno City College 58-49 immediately after the Ram’s win and are 28-3 on the season. City College now has a 31-1 record and hope to repeat as back-to-back state champions and cap off a successful season.
“Fullerton were the number one team in the south all season,” Labagh said. “They have similar personnel to us. It will be a battle.”