PASADENA — Win or lose, in its first-round boys' basketball playoff game hosting Heritage Christian Wednesday night, Muir High's postseason run was guaranteed to go further than last season, when the Mustangs were forced to forfeit 20 games late in the season due to the use of an ineligible player, costing them the Pacific League title and a chance to play in the postseason.
“Last year we got our playoff run taken away. We didn’t even get a game at all,” said Jelani Mitchell, who was one of three players on this year’s roster who played varsity last season. “This year, a new coach, different program, new kids, so we definitely want to do our best and just play as hard as we can.”
CIF-Southern Section Division IVAA playoffs over the No. 3 Olympic League entry Heritage Christian from North Hills.
“It feels like we are back at home,” said Muir senior Taturs Maberry, who also played on last year’s squad, of being in the postseason. “We were here sophomore year, so it feels like we haven’t missed a beat as a team.”
This year’s Mustangs squad had six players score in double digits in their first playoff contest, led by Mitchell’s 14, in a team effort for the home win under the leadership of new coach Simaine Stewart.
“We are a young bunch in terms of basketball games played,” Stewart said. “With the exception of Jelani Mitchell, Taturs Maberry and Brian Carrier, we haven’t an awful lot of minutes in terms of guys who played at the varsity level. So we are young in that sense, and I think each game that goes by, we gain a little more confidence and get a little bit better.”
Muir came into the playoffs as the No. 3 entry from the Pacific and are seeded No. 13 in the division. Before Wednesday’s triumph, the last playoff game for Muir (17-12) was a first-round loss in the 2011 Division IV CIF-State tournament, which the Mustangs earned an invitation to by gaining a berth in the Southern Section Division VAA final game.
Mitchell had 12 of his 14 points after halftime, including 10 in the third quarter, when the Warriors (11-15) closed to within 12. Muir then found its rhythm again and pushed the advantage, which peaked at 29 in the fourth quarter, after which the Muir reserves finished up.
“The start [I was satisfied with], the middle of the game no,” Stewart said. “We got back on our heels and got complacent. Late in the third quarter into the fourth quarter we picked up our energy and we got to playing what we want to do: playing defense, getting out on the break, getting easy opportunities.”
Maberry was close behind Mitchell with 12 points. Three Mustangs scored 11 points. Reserve Raheem Ware had eight of his 11 in the fourth. Guard Evan Bynum also had 11 points to go along with nine assists, 10 rebounds and four steals. Junior Jamir Jenkins came off the bench past the halfway mark of the first quarter to score seven of his 11 and help Muir to a 27-8 cushion after the opening frame.
“[Jenkins] is our spark,” Stewart said. “He is a hit-or-miss guy, so he’s one of those guys that once he gets it going he is going to keep it going for us.”
The final Mustang to reach double figures was starter Chris Bellew with 10. Overall, Muir had 11 players score at least one bucket.
“Rather than someone having 30 points,” Stewart said, “I’d rather we have anywhere between 12 and 20, a collection of points, because now the defense has to pick their poison.”
The Mustangs’ next game in this season’s playoff run will be on Friday against the winner of No. 5 seed Lutheran against La Verne at Milken Community, also contested Wednesday night.
“Each game is going to get harder and harder,” Mitchell said, “so definitely just play our game and play hard and stay focused.”