PALMDALE — Highland boys basketball head coach Tim Anderson told his team that one team’s season is ending on Friday night.
Damien Guest made sure it wasn’t the Bulldogs’ season.
“Nobody wants to go home,” said Guest. “Each time we step on the court we want to play like it’s the championship game.”
Guest led Highland with 22 points and for the second time this season the Bulldogs defeated Claremont.
And this time it mattered even more.
The Bulldogs used their athleticism to run away with a 69-55 victory at Highland High School in the opening round of the CIF-Southern Section Division 3AA playoffs.
“I thought we played well in stretches. We had some bad moments and we weren’t clean at times. We’ve been preaching that playoffs are a different beast,” Anderson said. “At times we sped the game up in our minds. We were blessed to be at home tonight. We just need to have a little more patience and a little better decision making.”
With the victory, Highland (22-7) will travel to Ventura on Tuesday to face the Cougars in the second round. The Bulldogs and Ventura (21-8) share one commonality — both teams having lost to Burroughs-Ridgecrest. The Cougars lost to the Burros in late December and the Bulldogs lost to them in early January.
Highland got off to a good start in the first quarter and took a 20-10 lead into the second after Justin Hill and Guest both netted two 3-pointers each to help build the lead.
The Bulldogs’ defense held the Wolfpack to only three field goals in the second quarter, one of those was a 3-pointer at the buzzer after they led 34-18.
Highland defeated Claremont, 51-45, in a tournament in late December and Anderson noticed that the Wolfpack shot a minimal number of 3s. So the Bulldogs, who haven’t played much zone defense this season, went to a 2-3 zone to try to force Claremont (12-17) to take more outside shots.
“In the first game I think they were like 1-for-7 on 3s,” Anderson said.
Highland packed in a tight zone defense and the Wolfpack tried to attack the gaps in the zone. Still Claremont had a tough time solving the riddle.
“I thought we did a good job controlling the tempo. They tried to make a run at us, but we were able to answer. We gave up a few runs, but we started cleaning things up,” said Guest. “We did a good job in our 2-3 (zone). We tried to keep the ball outside the paint. We knew why it was a closer game the first time we played them.”
The Wolfpack made a run in the third quarter after falling behind, 48-32, which tied for the largest lead of the game for Highland. Claremont closed the quarter with a 9-0 run to trim the lead to 48-41.
“We had a couple of (defensive) breakdowns, but overall the team played great. We definitely weren’t looking past them,” Highland’s Julian Williams said. “It was a good (opening round) game for us. We have to work a little bit more on our defense and I have to make shots. I am pleased with the victory.”
The sharpshooter Williams struggled from behind the arc, but he figured out once his 3-pointer wasn’t falling and he began slashing towards the rim and was fouled on several occasions. He finished with 13 points and was 7-of-8 from the free throw line.
Hill, who was plagued with foul trouble, finished with 15 points including three 3-pointers. He put the icing on Highland’s victory with an emphatic one-handed dunk with less than a minute remaining to lift the crowd off its feet.
“In the second half we got the shots we wanted. We were able to run our sets and got good shots. We did miss a lot of wide-open opportunities though,” Anderson said. “We didn’t play great, but we have something to build off of. It’s the first round and I’m just happy with the win. We have two days to prepare (for Ventura) and we can talk about some of the mistakes we made.”