Tony Njia said it best Thursday night when asked about his team’s defensive effort.
“We were trying to be first more than they were trying to be third,” said Njia, who scored a game-high 17 points in San Marcos’ 54-26 victory over Cabrillo at the Thunderhut.
The victory propelled the Royals to a 17-9 overall record and a 9-1 finish in Channel League, earning them a tie with Santa Barbara High. San Marcos left little doubt in the early going and stormed out to a 12-0 lead after the first quarter.
As they have all season long, San Marcos was the aggressor on the defensive end of the floor. The Royals were able to use their full-court pressure defense to force the Conquistadors into multiple turnovers, and even when the visitors were able to get a shot off, a San Marcos defender was right there to challenge the shot.
“We talked in the locker room and made sure our mind was right and this game was going to be won on defense,” Njia said. “Offense, we were going to be fine. Defense was going to be the winning part.”
Thursday marked the second time this season that San Marcos has held an opponent scoreless for a quarter, having accomplished the feat in a 40-point win over Dos Pueblos on Jan. 17.
“That’s just a testament to just how far we’ve come,” said coach Jelani Hicks. “To be able to do that multiple times, that’s tough. To have someone score two points or less in eight minutes of a varsity game, that’s not something we take lightly and that’s something that we’re kind of proud of. That’s the effort we try to put out every night.”
A tough night got even tougher for the visitors in the second quarter. Although Raymond Vega’s layup with 7:32 left in the second quarter got the Conquistadors on the board, San Marcos outscored Cabrillo 18-4 in the quarter. Isaiah Hicks knocked down a floater with 4:22 left in the second to make it 20-2, and following a reverse layup by Cabrillo’s Hayden Jory, San Marcos closed the half on a 10-0 run, which included a kind shooters roll on a Njia 3-pointer with just over two minutes left in the half. The Royals led 30-4 at the break, as the hosts were able to channel their emotions on what could be the final home game for five San Marcos players.
Despite its struggles Thursday, Cabrillo (17-10, 6-4 in Channel League) clinched third place in the league earlier in the week. The Conquistadors outscored San Marcos 16-11 in the third quarter, with Jory scoring six of his team-high nine points in the period.
The Royals held a 13-6 advantage in the final quarter.
After the game, Santa Barbara won the coin toss between the co-Channel League champions and earned the number one seed. All three teams are expected to learn their playoff fates on Sunday.
As Hicks reflected on the season, he looked to the wall inside the San Marcos gym. Blue and red tiles signify the league titles won by the Royals boys and girls teams.
“We use that wall a lot,” Hicks said. “That was one goal that we had on our wall, is just winning league. It’s not something that happens every year or happens very often, so the fact that we were able to take a piece of it, that’s big time and that’s a big confidence boost going into the CIF (playoffs).”
San Marcos has now won seven games in a row and 13 of its last 15. The team will look to continue that momentum in the postseason.
“We’ve always said we want to peak around this time and we’re around that point,” Hicks said. “I still think there are things where we can get better, but we’re definitely kind of trending upward. And this is the perfect time to do it. You want to be playing your best ball going into the playoffs, so we’re just going to keep doing what’s been working for us.”