By Miguel A. Melendez Staff Writer
PASADENA –The last step atop the Pacific League ladder proved to be the toughest.
Not only did the Muir High School boys basketball team have to face a Crescenta Valley team that derailed Pasadena’s chances of repeating as league champion for the 10th consecutive year, it did so without its most physical forward.
When the shock of losing Andre Frazier finally wore off in the second half, the Mustangs turned up the heat like they always do, but it was Jelani Mitchell’s clutch free throws in the waning minute that paved the way for a66-63 win over the visiting Falcons on Tuesday night to claim the school’s first league title in over a decade.
Muir (24-1, 13-0) got off to a rough start offensively, and the absence of a big body in Frazier (6-foot-5, 180 pounds) showed. Frazier sat outfor precautionary reasons after Muir officials learned his eligibility might be in danger upon his transfer from Bell-Jeff last year. A clerical error was identified on Monday, though it’s uncertain how significant an error was made. Over those concerns, however,Smalley decided to sit Frazier while paperwork with Bell-Jeff and the CIF-Southern Section is sorted out in an effort to save Frazier’s eligibility while keeping Muir’s unbeaten league record intact with one game left in the regular season before the playoffs.
Nevertheless, Muir used an8-0 run in the third quarter to take its first lead of the game 40-39 on a Mitchell 3-pointer with 4:21 left in the third quarter. Mitchell, a junior guard, finished with 16 points and hit five free throws in the final 38 seconds to seal the win.
Muir overcame a sloppy start, missing 8 of its first 9 attempts in the first quarter. The Mustangs’ suffocating defense was there from the start, forcing Crescenta Valley (21-5, 10-3) into a turnover just 10 seconds into the game.
But Muir’s cold start meant climbing an uphill battle from the very start. Its speed was met by a virtual wall in the first half, and Mitchell was kept silent as he took only two shot attempts in the first half. Muir at halftime, 37-31.
“I reamed him at halftime because we can’t have a guy like him taking just two shots in the first half,” Muir coach Gamal Smalley said. “We need a guy of his caliber to shoot like we know he can shoot.”
Mitchell took the message and ran with it, creating chances with fluid passing at the top of the key to create spacing. Tevin Polk reaped the benefits, scoring a game-high 18 points. Polk wasn’t the only key contributor.
Muir’s Dion Nelson was effective as the game went on, finding his soft stroke from mid-range. He finished with 16 points, but it was his game-high seven steals that really gave the Mustangs momentum.
“His seven steals were a real big game-changer,” Smalley said.
Crescenta Valley went hot in the first half with Dylan Kigour, who seemingly couldn’t miss from the 3-point line to finish with 14 points. Cole Currie and Christian Missi each scored 15 points and Davis Dragovich added 14. The Falcons maybe got a little too greedy from beyond the arc, going cold from there in the second half. By the time Crescenta Valley started feeding it to the bigs inside it was too late.
Polk in the third quarter got the Mustangs started with a drive-in layup followed by Mitchell’s very own with 5:05 left in the third quarter. Crescenta Valley turned the ball over on the ensuing possession and Mitchell squared up for a 3-pointer to pull Muir within 40-39. Crescenta Valley called a timeout, but it wouldn’t matter, the Mustangs were in a defensive zone, trapping the Falcons on nearly every inbounds pass.
Despite no success inside in the first half, Polk’s determination never waned. He continued attacking inside that led to free throws and even a dunk followed by a fastbreak layup to help the Mustangs retain a 51-49 lead heading into the fourth quarter.
Maurice Ballard, who finished with nine points, opened the fourth quarter with a 3-pointer. Brian Carrier played in place of Frazier and did a solid job making it hard for the Falcons’ tall front court. Taturs Mayberry finished with six points and five rebounds.
All that’s left now is Thursday’s game against rival Pasadena, which will have no playoff or league standing implications.
Bragging rights, however, is still up for grabs.