Orange Coast captures first Orange Empire title in nearly 40 years

Orange Coast College
Orange Coast College

COSTA MESA, Calif. - The old barn was rockin' and rollin' like it was 1979 all over again!

For the first time in 40 years, the Orange Coast College men's basketball team has earned the title of conference champions, claiming the Orange Empire Conference crown on Friday night with an 83-74 overtime win against second-place Fullerton College before a packed and frenzied OCC-heavy crowd inside the Peterson Gym.

"I'm just so happy for the guys ... what a courageous and resilient bunch of players on this team," OCC head coach Steve Spencer said. "We've been able to get better and better as the season has gone on and this group had to overcome a lot of adversity to get to where they are now."

Friday's win -- OCC's 10th straight and 17th in 19 games -- locks up the OEC title with just one game remaining -- at Riverside on Tuesday night, beginning at 7 p.m. From there, the Pirates (19-7, 10-1 in OEC) will wait and see where they stand when the playoff seedings are announced.

With all of these heart-stopping victories down the stretch, it was the one conference loss -- a 63-62 setback at Irvine Valley -- that really galvanized this group.

"We learned that when it's crunch time and the pressure is on, you have to embrace the moment and not shy away from it," Spencer said. "We had a couple of those tough losses earlier in the year and I think from there, we just went for it and we didn't fear the risk of failure."

OCC's "Big Three" of Lloyd Wright (21 points), Kupaa Harrison (18 points, 10 rebounds) and Josh Davis (18 points, nine rebounds) will get the spotlight, but Friday's win over the Hornets (19-7, 8-3) was earned by everyone who wore the orange and blue. Jumoke Walker battled through foul trouble all night, but finished with a team-best five assists before fouling out late in the fourth quarter.

Malik Skillern and Leonard Stallings, each drained a pair of crucial 3-pointers and the duo combined for 17 points, four rebounds and three steals off the bench.

Robert Nixon came through with big points when some key players struggled with fouls and finished with eight points for the Pirates, who entered Friday night's game ranked eighth in the state.

In all, Coast overcame a sluggish night from the free-throw line (16-of-29) and finished with making 29-of-53 from the floor (54.7 percent) and 9-of-22 from 3-point range, while holding the Hornets to just 21 made field goals the entire night.

Jason Richardson led Fullerton with 26 points, while Rodrick McCobb added 11 points off the bench.

It was a game that was totally symbolic to this year's run for the Pirates as both teams battled for 45 minutes in a game that saw one lead bigger than nine points the entire night.

With 19 seconds left in regulation, Malik Skillern made 1-of-2 from the line to give Coast a 65-63 lead, but Khalil Stevenson took the inbounds pass and went coast to coast for a layup to tie the game and force overtime.

From there, the big boys took over for the Pirates. A pair of made FTs and a made layup by Harrison, followed by a 3-pointer by Wright helped pad OCC's lead to 72-67 with 3 minutes left in OT.

A key exchange happened with just over a minute remaining as OCC missed a pair of shots under the rim, but second- and third-chance opportunities by the Pirate post players resulted in a successful put-back by Harrison, giving Coast an eight-point advantage (78-70) with 1:19 remaining.

Fullerton, the state's 11th-ranked team, turned the ball over on its next possession and from there, Coast made enough free throws down the stretch to keep the Hornets at bay.

In OCC's 10 conference wins in a row, the average margin of victory is just 4.3 points-per-win. It's 10-game win streak is the first for the Pirates since the 1986-87 season and it's 17-2 stretch is the best 19-game stretch since the 1956-57 Pirate team that went 24-4 for the season. 

Coast's 19 wins this year is the most since 2005-06, when the Pirates finished the season 22-11. 

 (Tony Altobelli, Orange Coast)