By Nick Giannandrea
A run to the state final eight just didn't appear plausible this season for College of the Sequoias' men's basketball team.
Not with 10 newcomers - literally recruited from around the world - needing to mesh with the Giants' two returning players (TJ Givance and Mike Johnson, both reserves last season) and a redshirt (Garrett Shelton).
And not without the players who produced nearly 90 percent of COS' offense last season, when the Giants went 21-9 and reached the second round of the Northern California Regionals.
But a late-season roll has propelled COS to Ventura College, site of this weekend's California Community College state championship tournament. The Giants (22-8) are set to face Citrus (24-6) of Glendora at 1 p.m. Thursday in a quarterfinal match-up.
"When you have so many new guys in the mix, anything can happen," COS coach Rusty Smith said. "For sure this has surpassed my expectations of where I thought we could go. Optimistically, I knew we had potential, but so much goes into it. There are so many variables."
The Giants, who entered the postseason ranked 10th in the state by the California Community College Men's Basketball Coaches' Association, have won eight straight games and 15 of their past 16.
That streak includes an 85-77 victory over fourth-seeded San Joaquin Delta in Stockton on March 9 that punched their ticket to the final eight and made Smith the winningest men's basketball coach in COS history. Smith is 352-214 in 18 seasons at COS, surpassing the 351 wins local legend Polly Wilhelmsen amassed between 1940-41 and 1963-64.
The Giants, who were seeded fifth in the NorCal Regional, also avenged a 78-71 loss to the Mustangs on Dec. 2 at the San Francisco City Tournament.
"They are a good team," Smith said of Delta, which was seeded fourth in NorCal and ranked eighth in the state. "But we were pretty motivated."
Citrus also is on a roll heading into the state final eight, having won 13 straight games, including a 10-0 run through the Western State East Conference. The Owls' last loss was Jan. 11, a 77-72 overtime defeat against West Los Angeles.
The No. 11 scoring team in the state at 82.3 points per game, Citrus has been led by 6-foot-3 sophomore guard Josh Caston (15.4 points per game, 2.9 rebounds per game, 2.1 assists per game), 6-4 sophomore guard Sam Gagliardi (12.7 ppg, 4.4 rpg) and 6-4 sophomore guard Psalm Maduakor (11.8 ppg, 7.0 rpg).
The Owls, who were seeded second in the Southern California Regional and ranked No. 6 in the state, also received key contributions from 6-0 freshman guard Colby Orr (11.0 ppg, 2.9 rpg, 3.4 apg), 6-1 freshman guard Toby Okwuokel (9.5 ppg, 4.5 rpg) and 6-9 sophomore center Jesse Elrod (8.0 ppg, 3.9 rpg).
"They have a lot of guys who can score in a variety of ways, and they are super tough defensively," Smith said. "Hopefully the ball bounces our way because there are no weak sisters from here on out."
COS will counter with the state's fourth-best defense in points allowed at 63.8 per game.
Offensively, the Giants are carried by first-team all-Central Valley Conference selections Keshawn Gibbs and Tristan Forsyth. Gibbs, a 6-2 sophomore guard from Atlanta, averages 16.3 points, 3.4 rebounds, 2.9 assists and 1.2 steals a game. Forsyth, a 6-10 sophomore forward/center from Australia, averages 12.7 points and 7.4 rebounds a game.
COS also relies on 6-7 sophomore guard/forward Johnson (10.1 ppg, 3.9 rpg) from Lancaster, 6-5 sophomore forward/center Givance (9.5 ppg, 7.3 rpg) from Texas, 6-6 freshman forward/center Jarrell Holmes (6.4 ppg, 5.2 rpg) from Atlanta and 6-0 freshman guard Bobby Santos (5.1 ppg, 2/6 apg) from San Jose.
"We've got to have everyone bringing their 'A' game and really locking in on our offensive and defensive schemes," Smith said. "If we do that, we have as good a chance as anyone does to move forward."
With a win, the Giants would advance to a semifinal against the winner between North No. 1 seed City College of San Francisco (29-1) and South No. 4 Santa Monica (20-11) at either 1 or 3 p.m. Saturday. The state final is scheduled for 1 p.m. Sunday.
The other side of the bracket features South No. 1 Fullerton (27-3) against North No. 4 Santa Rosa (22-8) and North No. 2 Fresno City (27-3) against South No. 3 Chaffey (23-7).
COS' men will be making their second state final eight appearance in the past four seasons, their fourth overall under Smith and the 14th in school history.
"I'm not making any baskets," Smith said. "We've had good players who have worked very hard to get there. It's just my job to heard them in the right direction."
The Giants previously won state titles in 1982 and 1953.
COS is the only college in the state to qualify both its men's and women's teams to the state final eight. The state No. 5-ranked Giants' women are set to face top-ranked Moorpark at 7 p.m. Friday in a quarterfinal.
All men's and women's games from the tournament will be streamed live at www.socalcollegesports.com.
Ventura College is located at 4667 Telegraph Road in Ventura.
Tickets are $12 for general admission and $8 for college students, teachers and staff with an ID, seniors 60-and-over and children younger than 12.
Parking is $10.