WILDOMAR First place in the Sunbelt League was at stake Thursday night and the Perris boys basketball team almost pulled off a feat not seen since the previous decade — a league win against Elsinore.
However, the Tigers (15-6, 4-0) mounted a spirited, fourth-quarter rally to squeak past the Panthers, 52-51, and keep a stranglehold on the Sunbelt League.
Deven Riley sank two free throws with four-tenths of a second remaining to seal the win. With the Tigers trailing 51-50 with 4.3 seconds left, Riley drove toward the basket and was fouled by Perris’ Tyler Cooper at the bottom of the key.
“Since we only needed one, I knew a layup would work,” said Riley, whose 21 points led the Tigers. “I went straight to the basket and hoped they would foul me.”
Riley’s clutch free throws extended the Tigers’ Sunbelt League winning streak to 35 games. Ironically, Perris (12-7, 3-1) was the last Sunbelt team to defeat Elsinore, 69-41, on Feb. 10, 2009, when Elsinore’s currrent players were in middle school.
Though the streak is remarkable and hard to ignore, the Tigers prefer not to talk about it.
“What streak?” Riley said.
“We never mention it,” Elsinore coach Pete Rettinger said. “The only thing we are concerned with, this current year in league. We are 4-0. Everybody is going to be after us to close the gap.”
The Panthers, ranked No. 9 in Division II-AA, seemed on the verge of gaining ground in the second half.
Down 23-15 at halftime, Perris went on an impressive 21-6 run in the third quarter to take a seven-point lead entering the final period. The Panthers led 46-37 with 3:54 left as the Tigers’ pressure defense struggled to defend super sophomore Tristan Hunter in transition.
Hunter finished with a game-high 29 points, including seven shots made behind the arc.
“They are physically tough,” said Riley of Perris, whom it faces Feb. 5 on the road. “They beat you up. That’s what we have to get used to.”
The Tigers’ defense buckled down to hold the Panthers to only five points in the final 31/2 minutes to the game. Elsinore’s Allan Stubbs spearheaded the defensive effort with six steals.
“(Their coaches) are always able to get their guys to play with max effort,” Perris coach Elzie Landers said. “I thought their energy and their effort from a defensive standpoint really was the difference in the ballgame.”
Elsinore got crucial 3-pointers from Preston Beverly and Trevon Lampkin in the waning minutes.
But it was Riley who shined the most with an all-around effort, which included four blocked shots, three steals, five rebounds and four assists.
“I thought his leadership was outstanding,” Landers said. “His reckless abandon going to the basket was kind of key to the game.”
Despite playing competitive basketball for only a little more than a year, Riley showed an uncanny fearlessness when he drove into the lane. And his fortitude paid off by drawing the critical, late foul.
“Every game he is figuring out some nuance of the game where he could take of advantage of or get better at,” Rettinger said. “I think you saw that tonight. He handled the ball very well. He picked his spots in his drive.”