In the CIF Southern Section postseason, no measure of respect is awarded free. It's earned, one possession, one game, one victory at a time.
Perhaps no team in the 3AA Division boys' basketball playoffs knows this better than Palm Desert High, a team that entered Friday's second-round game at Corona del Mar seeking respect as much as a win.
The No. 13-seeded Aztecs, who went 12-0 to win the Desert Valley League, have made the playoffs six straight seasons and came in with a 12-game winning streak, gained a significant measure of respect by producing a 55-43 upset of No. 4-seeded Corona del Mar.
The Aztecs (21-5), seized a lead of 8-0, trailed only once, shot 58.8% from the field, 57.1% from three-point range and held the Sea Kings to just 30.6% shooting from the field.
CdM (20-7), which relied on penetration and perimeter shooting to win a share of the Pacific Coast League title, also missed all 10 of its first-half free throws. The Sea Kings finished 10 for 25 from the foul line and made just two of 17 three-point tries (11.8%).
CdM, which committed its first turnover nearly 20 minutes into the contest and finished with just three turnovers, opened the second half on a 7-3 run that turned a 24-21 intermission deficit into a 28-27 lead.
But after Palm Desert senior point guard Andrew Clark answered with a driving layin with 5:06 left in the third period, the Sea Kings never led again.
"This is a senior-laden team and we didn't get much respect from CIF, in terms of a seeding," said Palm Desert Coach Don Brady, in his 28th season at the helm of the Aztecs. "I think we're pretty good. Corona could have beaten us. [It] has a great program. But I felt like we could pretty much play with anyone and we just weren't given much respect all year."
The Aztecs made seven of 10 field-goal attempts in the third quarter to help fuel a 19-1 run that extended into the fourth quarter and eventually yielded a 48-30 advantage.
CdM, defending feverishly, fouling and hoisting numerous three-point attempts to try to pare the deficit, eventually pulled within 50-42 with 1:07 left.
But the visitors, who made just 10 if their 22 free throws to make the two teams a combined 20 for 47 from the foul line (46.8%), netted five of six from the line in the final 63 seconds to advance to the quarterfinals.
It's only the second time in six seasons the Aztecs have made it past the second round.
"We made it to the semifinals two seasons ago and 10 years ago, we made it to the final," Brady said. "I'd love to have something like that happen again."
For CdM, which won a section 3A Division title in 2006-2007 in Coach Ryan Schachter's first season at the helm, it marks only the second time in eight seasons the Sea Kings did not at least reach the division quarterfinals.
"We struggled to score a lot lately," Schachter said. "The ball just hasn't been going in. We defended well, I thought, but the score kind of got up because we were really trying to create tempo. I thought they had a tough time guarding us off the dribble in the man-to-man, so they went to the zone and that has kind of been our arch-nemesis this year."
Junior guard Bo St. Geme split his game-high 18 points between the two halves and he netted both of the Sea Kings' three-pointers.
But junior Kevin Fults was the only other Sea King with more than two field goals. He netted a pair of short jump shots down the stretch to match senior Jeff Johnston with six points, before fouling out with 32 seconds remaining. Fults also had a team-best seven rebounds, though CdM was handled, 36-24, on the glass.
Anthony Murdica, a 6-foot-3 junior and the lone forward in the Aztecs' lineup, had seven of his 11 points in the first quarter and he added 10 rebounds for a double-double.
Senior Daniel McCown, a sharpshooter who had 27 points in a first-round win over visiting South Hills, scored six of his 11 points in the final period.
Senior James Gallegos led the winners with 16 points, including two three-pointers in the critical third-quarter charge.