Rams fall 83-73 to Fullerton in State Championship final

Photo by Jon Marley, CCCAA
Photo by Jon Marley, CCCAA

Courtesy Robert Schmidt, CCCMBCA

 - Destiny knocked. And, Fullerton answered the door.

Fullerton College, behind a strong shooting performance, beat City College of San Francisco, 83-73 on Sunday in the CCCAA Men's Basketball Championship at West Hills College Lemoore. For Fullerton head coach Perry Webster, the championship is his second state title, winning number one in 2019. That win also came against San Francisco City.

This year's championship erased last year's disappointment when the Hornets lost key players late in the season and missed out on a chance to play in the state tournament.

"We lost two guys last year to season-ending injuries," Webster said. "They battled back and showed the character of the guys in this program."

For Fullerton College program, the championship was its fifth in its history. The Hornets are now tied with Cerritos, Fresno City, Long Beach City and — San Francisco City — for the most state men's basketball titles.

With the loss, San Francisco was rebuffed from its sixth title, which would have made the college the most decorated program in men's basketball. San Francisco City head coach Justin Labagh was trying to become the first coach to win five state championships, breaking a tie with legendary coach Jerry Tarkanian who collected four state titles — three at Riverside City and one at Pasadena City. Tarkanian's titles came in consecutive seasons — 1964 to 1967. In 1966, Tarkanian and his 1966 Riverside team beat San Francisco City, 91-61, for the state title. Labagh's titles have come in 2011, 216, 2018 and 2022. 

Despite all of its titles, San Francisco City has never won consecutive state champions. In fact, there have only been three repeaters – Long Beach (1958, 1959); Riverside City (1964, 1965, 1966); Rancho Santiago (Santa Ana now, 1990, 1991).

Today's championship game was the second contest between the two storied programs this season. In the two teams' first meeting, back on Nov. 17 in the College of the Sequoias' Giants Classic, Fullerton scored a 96-92 overtime victory.

This game lived up to every expectation.

In the first half, Fullerton, the south's top seed, shot 52 percent from the floor in the first half. Eleven of Fullerton's points came off the nine San Francisco turnovers, something that plagued the Rams in the championship tournament. The Rams finished with 65 turnovers in their three games, interestingly San Francisco committed no turnovers in the second half in today's game.

Fullerton, in opening a 43-27 halftime advantage, got 36 points from its starters, with two — Shaquil Bender (13 points), the tournament's MVP, and Kobe Newton (11), an all-tournament selection — reaching double figures. Newton played just 11 minutes in the half. He also had six rebounds. San Francisco City scored the first points of the game, but after that Fullerton took over, building a six-point lead at 10:57 on three-pointer by Javon Jones, his only points in the half, with 10:57 remaining. From there, Fullerton would build a double digit lead, 30-19, on a dunk by Bender with 5:49 on the clock. 

A layup by San Francisco City's Mezziah Oakman got the Rams within nine at 32-23 with 4:35 remaining, but Fullerton went on an 11-4 run to close out the half and seize a 16-point lead.

Fullerton tried to put the game early, opening a 19-point lead just seconds into the second half. But San Francisco City fought back. A Willie Williams' three-pointer cut the Fullerton lead to under 10 with 13:49 remaining. After minutes of trading baskets, San Francisco City made its final push, getting within 76-73 behind a Jamir Thomas three pointer with 2:23 remaining. However, it would be as close as the Rams would get as Fullerton scored the game's final 7 points and went to ball control down the stretch to burn clock.

"San Francisco City is a hard team to beat," Webster said. "We got the lead and just tried to maintain it. Our point guards did a really good job with the ball.)"

Fullerton did an even better job shooting the ball. For the three games in the tournament, Fullerton was 80 of 158 (51 percent) from the floor, 26 of 66 (39 percent) from the three-point line. Against San Francisco, Fullerton finished 29 of 52 for a 52 percent shooting percentage (29 of 52) and made 13 of 28 three-pointers (46 percent) San Francisco City wasn't as fortunate. The Rams made 27 of 66 shots (41 percent) and made just 9 of 23 three pointers (30 percent) in the championship game.

Newton, a graduate of Westview High School in Portland, OR, led Fullerton with 25 points on 8 of 12 shooting. He made 7 of 9 three pointers and dished out three assists. Bender, a sophomore of Los Angeles added 23 points in 28 minutes. Jeremiah Davis added 10 points and Sammy Howlin grabbed a game-best 10 rebounds, nine defensively.

San Francisco City had four players score in double figures, led by Mezziah Oakman with 15. Teammates EJ Neal and Te'Jon Sawyer added 14, apiece, and Kadeem Nelson chipped in 11, off the bench. Sawyer and Oakman also grabbed seven rebounds apiece, helping the Rams to outrebound Fullerton, 33 to 27. 

Fullerton's Bender, an all-state selection, was joined on the CCCMBCA All-Tournament team by teammate Sean Newman. Other players honored included Jon Sanders of East Los Angeles, Jayden Johnson of Citrus, Sawyer and Neal of San Francisco City, and Newton of Fullerton