Etiwanda grinds out win over Gahr

CERRITOS -- A 15-point halftime lead had been whittled to single digits early in the third quarter Tuesday night, and Etiwanda boys’ basketball coach Dave Kleckner didn’t waste any time yanking two starters from the game and giving both a sideline scolding for unacceptable play.

Kleckner then called timeout, brought his team into a tight huddle and shared his message with the rest of the Eagles. Either play his way or don’t play at all. They responded by holding off Gahr, 60-52, in the second round of the Division 1AA playoffs.

Despite the victory, Kleckner was still clinching his teeth several minutes after the game.

“That was kind of frustrating, to tell you the truth,” he said. “It all started unraveling in the second half there.”

Since Kleckner took over at Etiwanda in 1996-97, the Eagles have never been eliminated in the second round or earlier. Gahr, the defending Division 2A champion, was playing in a tougher division this season, but also featured a starting front line of 6-foot-7 senior forward John Benson, 6-6 junior forward Kyle Benton and 6-6 senior center Davion Thomas, as well as 6-4 shooting guard Brian Nebo.

Etiwanda doesn’t have a player in its rotation taller than 6-4.

Kleckner wanted his post defenders to front Gahr’s big men and provide help on the backside. That’s not what he saw to start the second half.

“First possession, they pound it right into the post and we’re sitting behind the guy,” Kleckner said.

Starter No. 1 pulled from the game.

Kleckner asks his players to attack the rim with strength and purpose. That’s not what happened on one of the first trips down the floor in the third quarter, when senior Dominique Walker missed an off-balance attempt and then made things worse by laying on the court, wondering why a foul wasn’t called on the play.

Second starter benched.

“We come down and we’re throwing up some weak layups, ” Kleckner said. “Be strong with the ball, two feet, two hands … we’re begging for calls on weak shot attempts.”

After the Gladiators made two free throws to cut the deficit to nine points, Kleckner called timeout to make sure he got his message across.

“He basically just said, ‘Calm down, stay focused,’ because they were going to go on a run,” Walker said. “If we played defense, it would be alright.”

The Eagles managed to stretch the lead back to double digits, but again gave the Gladiators hope with several turnovers in the fourth quarter while trying to penetrate an aggressive full-court press.

“We got a little iffy down the stretch,” said sophomore point guard Jordan McLaughlin. “We played hard in the second and first quarter, but we’ve got to play through four quarters.”

Especially with a potential rematch with second-seeded Long Beach Poly looming.

Etiwanda had its section playoff runs ended by either Mater Dei or Poly the last three seasons, and was eliminated by the Jackrabbits in the Southern California Division 1 regional playoffs the last two years.

“We’re still hungry from last year, but we have to take care of business [in the quarterfinals],” Walker said. “But Poly, we still want that game.”

The third-seeded Eagles (28-1) must get past visiting Santa Monica, a team they beat by four points in the semifinals of the Holiday Hardwood Classic at Oaks Christian in December. Long Beach Poly will host Eisenhower in another quarterfinal.

“We just have to take it one game at a time,” McLaughlin said.

One possession at a time might be an even better strategy.