COSTA MESA -- With their ticket to the State Elite Eight officially punched, the Orange Coast College Pirates will now focus their attention on the business at hand, which is finding a way to beat the Fresno City College Rams on Friday night at Ventura College.
The Pirates (22-7), champions of the Orange Empire Conference and the No. 3 seed out of Southern California, will have their hands full for their 5 p.m. matchup with Frenso (27-4), champions of the Central Valley Conference and the No. 2 seed out of Northern California. The Rams come into Friday's contest averaging 93.7 points per game -- second-most in the state -- and the Rams' flaws are few and far between. FCC has made more field goals than any team in the state, the Rams are third in the state in field goal percentage (50%), ninth in the state in 3-point shooting percentage (38.3%) and 16th in the state in free-throw percentage (72%).
The key to the Rams' success is depth. Running anywhere from 13-to-15 players deep on any given night. Fresno's balance of size, speed and aggressive play can create fits for the opposition and the Rams 18.8 turnovers forced-per-game average validates that.
"Fresno comes at you nonstop and they don't let you get comfortable whatsoever," OCC head coach Steve Spencer said. "They play the same aggressive style as we do, so we will have to be able to handle that type of relentless pressure and find a way minimize mistakes, while forcing mistakes on their end."
Sophomore guard Tyus Millhollin leads the Rams in scoring (13.5 ppg), with fellow sophomore guard Jess Spivey close behind at 10.6 points per game. Fresno leads the state in assists per game (23.6) and the offense begins in the hands of sophomore Tommy Nuno (9.7 points, 5.6 assists/game).
As far as rebounding goes, again, it's a full team effort, with sophomore Eric Pierce leading the way at 5.3 boards-per-game.
Even though the individual numbers are not mind-blowing, the results certainly are. Over the last 10 games, Fresno has averaged 105.5 points per game, including a 142-76 win over Merced and a 140-100 win over Cerro Coso. In the postseason, the second-seeded Rams opened things with a 98-79 win over No. 15 Canada and followed that up with a 93-78 victory over No. 7 Gavilan.
In spite of the impressive numbers posted by the Rams, at this point, the Pirates are heading to Ventura respecting everyone, but fearing no one. After starting the season 2-5, the Pirates have been on a historical run, winning 20-of-22 games since then. The last time the Pirates had a 20-2 stretch in a season was all the way back in 1956-57, where they started that season 23-2. If this year's crew can match that stretch from 60 years ago, they will win their first state men's basketball title since former Olympian Steve Timmons led the 1978-79 Pirates to the top of the mountain.
The secret to success for the Pirates has been their ability to make the big plays on both sides of the ball with the game on the line. Of OCC's 20 wins over the past 22 games, 12 have been decided by seven points or less and Coast is a perfect 5-0 in games decided in overtime.
If there is an advantage for the Pirates, it might be down low, there freshman center Joshua Davis resides. The 6-6 post standout has been a mismatch for most players so far this season with his size down low and his ability to finish and find teammates. Davis is averaging 18 points and 9.2 rebounds per game and in the postseason, he's gotten even better, averaging 22 points and 13 rebounds per game.
"If we can find a way to get it to Josh, I think we can find some success down there," Spencer said. "Obviously the key will be getting the ball through their defensive pressure to make that happen."
Sophomores Lloyd Wright (16.3 ppg) and Kupaa Harrison (15.6 ppg, 7.4 rpg, 3.7 assists/game), will have to continue their dominant play to provide plenty of offensive options for the Pirates, while point guards Jumoke Walker and Malik Skillern will need to be able to handle the Rams' full-court pressure and minimize turnovers.
In addition to OCC's "Big Three", the Pirates have had several role players come up big in tough situations and provided that spark needed to help Coast pull through. Over the past two games, that has come from freshman Colin Pipkin, who hit a pair of key 3-pointers in OCC's playoff win over Mt. San Jacinto, as well as a big 14-point performance in the Regional final against Citrus on Saturday night.
With imposing teams like the Rams, City College of San Francisco (30-1) and San Diego City (31-2) just a few of the eight teams still remaining in the state tournament, the road to the top will be filled with tremendous challenges. But, that's nothing new for this year's Pirates, who were 8-19 a season ago and are now just three wins away from a state championship.