Which would be more incredible, coming back from a 20-0 deficit and winning or eclipsing a 7-point deficit with only 21 seconds left in the game and winning?
The Calabasas boys’ basketball team accomplished both of those unlikely feats last Saturday night when it defeated Thousand Oaks, 49-46, in a pivotal Marmonte League game for both teams.
The Coyotes’ standout junior guard, Jeremy Lieberman, said Calabasas never lost faith despite an incredibly slow start. Thousand Oaks was actually ahead 18-0 after the first quarter.
“The whole game, losing just is not an option for us," Lieberman said. "That was the mentality, no matter how far we got down. It was a never-quit mentality.”
The Calabasas players stayed positive and their head coach, Jon Palarz, kept his head and held onto his all-important timeouts (something San Francisco 49ers’ quarterback Colin Kaepernick probably wishes he did in the Super Bowl on Sunday).
“The captains were calling out orders on the floor, talking to each other, just trying to get everybody to come together,” Lieberman said. “Our coach really coached a great game. He saved a lot of timeouts and we needed those down the stretch.”
With the win, Calabasas put itself in position to win its second straight Marmonte League championship and its third in four years if it can defeat Westlake on the road on Thursday night.
Against Thousand Oaks, Calabasas fell behind in an epic way. Being shut out in any quarter is extremely rare. To have it happen in the first quarter of the then-most important game of the season, could have left the Coyotes shell-shocked.
However, Calabasas, now 21-4 overall and 11-2 in league, fought back and actually took the lead by the end of the third quarter. Still down by 12 at halftime, the Coyotes rallied and pulled ahead 31-30 at the end of three.
Basketball is a game of runs, though, and Thousand Oaks came back in the fourth quarter and built the lead to seven with 21 seconds remaining. Normally that means the game is over. But this game was far from normal.
“Our team just came together,” Lieberman said. “We pulled it off.”
Calabasas outscored Thousand Oaks 10-0 in those final 21 seconds. Max Hoetzel, a 6-foot-8 forward, hit two free throws to start the splurge after being fouled with 17 seconds left.
After Calabasas got the ball back and scored to climb within three points, Lieberman hit a 3-point shot with 11 seconds left to tie the score at 46.
He then made two free throws after Thousand Oaks was hit with a technical foul for calling an illegal timeout when the Lancers were unable to inbound the ball with 2.3 second left.
The Coyotes hit one more free throw after T.O. was forced to foul again and the Lancers' desperation halfcourt shot to try and tie the score at the buzzer was no good.
“It was one of the craziest games I’ve been part of,” Palarz said. “I don’t recall that I’ve ever coached a game that we were behind 20-0. I think it’s the first time in my career.”
This is Palarz’ fifth season as the Coyotes’ coach. Last year Calabasas won a CIF championship.
What went wrong at the start against Thousand Oaks?
“Our shots weren’t falling,” Palarz said. “We just weren’t playing well. Give credit to Thousand Oaks, they were playing very well. They really dominated the boards and came out very strong.”
Maybe it was too much prosperity too quickly for the Lancers. Or maybe it was just a matter of time before the Coyotes surged.
“We sort of found a way to get it manageable by halftime and then we started to work our way back into the game,” Palarz said.
“They started to miss some shots and we played a little better defense. We started to make some shots and their defense began to break down. These close games are just that way.”
Thousand Oaks (21-5 overall and 10-3 in league) had trouble inbounding the ball in the game’s final seconds. Calabasas executed their inbounds plays perfectly and hit key free throws.
A Duke - North Carolina atmosphere on the high school level
As has been the case for many years, the Calabasas – Thousand Oaks rivalry produced another full house and another raucous crowd. This one at Calabasas High School.
“It was pretty close to as many fans as I’ve ever seen in there,” said Palarz, who noted that in 2010, when T.O. and Calabasas tied for the Marmonte League championship, there may have been a slightly bigger crowd.
“It was loud and very spirited and it’s been that way between our schools," he said. "We’ve had a good rivalry and they’ve had a really good team and it was just a very unusual game.”
Palarz compared Saturday’s crowd to the one the Coyotes got in the state playoffs last year.
Calabasas lost in the second round of the state playoffs to St. John Bosco, 75-71, after having defeated South High School, of Torrance, 69-39, in the CIF championship game two games before.
Lieberman’s late game heroics often ignite the rabid Coyotes' fan base. He averages about 16 points for Calabasas, but tends to score in important situations and does whatever is necessary to help the Coyotes win.
“I just do whatever the team needs me to do,” he said. “If they need me to score, I'll go get a bucket; if they need me to pass I’ll share the ball. It’s just whatever the team needs me to do.”
Lieberman was the Marmonte League’s Most Valuable Player last year as a sophomore. He has only improved and his uncanny ability to come through in the clutch makes an already dangerous Calabasas team that much more lethal.
“I feel most comfortable in those types of situations,” he said of making shots like the 3-pointer that tied the score at 46 against Thousand Oaks.
Calabasas is far from a one man show, however. Lieberman has a lot of help.
The lineup is a little different than when the season began due to a back injury to senior guard Danny Azran, who was an effective point guard and shooting guard.
Michael Hayon, a 6-4 sophomore, is now in the Coyotes’ starting lineup and plays center.
“It makes us a little bigger across the front line,” Palarz said.
Hoetzel, a junior, plays small forward, Austin Smith, a 6-7 junior, plays power forward. Alex Monsegue, a 6-2 senior guard and co-captain, plays the wing and is an especially tough defender.
“Alex is a senior leader of our team,” Palarz said.
Kenny Marshall and Cooper Pedati, both 6-1 senior guards, add depth off the bench and often contribute with key 3-point baskets, said Palarz.
Westlake beat Royal, 75-69, on Tuesday night, and with the win has an identical record – 21-4 overall and 11-2 in league – as Calabasas.
More importantly, with the Warriors’ win the game Thursday night between Calabasas and Westlake is officially for the outright league title.
“We really value the Marmonte League championship that we won last year and in 2010,” Palarz said. “Really, all of our focus is on the league. Playoffs, CIF, that will come, but right now we’re exited about trying to win the league championship.
“We do control our destiny. (If) we win one more game, we’re the champs.”
However, Calabasas will have to accomplish that on the road, in a game that the Coyotes suspected would have the title implications.
“We’ve been looking forward to this game for while,” Lieberman said. “We know going there it’s going to be tough because it’s at their house.
“It’s going to be a battle, an all-out battle.”