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Taft needed a late third quarter 3-pointer to break up a 16-0 Lompoc High run — and give the Wildcats the chance to keep things close against the Braves’ boys basketball team.  

And Dylan Self’s 3, plus other key open shots from behind the arc, eventually lifted the Wildcats past the Braves 59-56 on Thursday in the opening game of the Santa Maria Holiday Hoops Tournament.

Self — who was Taft’s leading scorer coming into the contest at 17.9 points per game according to Max Preps — went on to swish six 3-pointers on the day including that crucial basket as time expired in the third. That long range attempt ended the huge LHS run — and swung the momentum back to Taft’s way.

Taft head coach Eric Newton said he’s seen huge moments like that from the 6-foot-1 Self.

“Dylan has had a tendency all year to make tough shots when we need them,” Newton said. “He’s definitely the team leader. When we need something big to happen, he’s the one who makes it happen.”

Though undersized coming into the game against LHS, Taft managed to force some tough, contested shot selections for the Braves and forced some early turnovers.

Right away, the Wildcats (8-4) went straight to the double team to create the changes in offensive possession. Taft also made sure there were two Wildcats locked in on Lompoc big Collin Oestereich.

The Braves (7-9), however, broke out of Taft’s double team scenarios and started feeding the ball to Ryan Morgan — who proceeded to energize an early 8-0 run to lead 8-2.

Taft would counter by finding an open Self and Connor McAfee behind the 3-point lines to spark their response, getting the Wildcats to close the first on a 10-0 run to lead 14-10.

The Third quarter was the Braves’ strongest quarter from a scoring standpoint. Morgan, who led the way with 19 points for LHS, got things started with his fast break lob to Oestereich, who proceeded to finish with the layup, cutting the Taft lead to 28-22.

Stephen Espinoza then got the Braves within four at 33-29 by nailing back-to-back 3-point attempts. Dominic Ballesteros would then put LHS back on top at 34-33 after sinking his 3-point attempt.

But with LHS up 40-33, Taft went back to Self with time winding down in the third. And Self’s shot from near the gym seats smoothly went through the net, lifting the confidence level of the Wildcats in the process.

Taft would go on to outscore Lompoc 26-16 the rest of the way. Morgan and Benecio Cayabyab kept LHS in the game; Morgan on a catch-and-shoot basket and Cayabyab scoring four late points from a steal and basket and a fast break layup. But one last chance to tie the game on a 3-pointer saw the basketball clank off of the right side of the glass.  

The victory ended the Braves’ winning streak against Kern County opponents. Lompoc entered the contest carrying a 4-0 record against teams from the 661 region this season.

“I was just happy with the way the team fought,” Newton said. “We started to make shots when we needed to make shots. When they went to their zone, they were showing us that they didn’t respect our outside shooting. But then in the beginning of the fourth quarter, we started to make those shots and they went back to their man. They were playing controlled basketball. I’m proud of the way they competed.”

Lompoc has now lost three straight; previously falling to San Marcos (59-33) and Dos Pueblos (67-61) before Thursday’s game. Head coach Paul Terrones said he was equally proud of the way his team scratched and clawed back against Taft.

“I’m proud of the guys for fighting back after being down big. But we couldn’t hold on in the end,” Terrones said. “Got to give them credit, they were able to knock down a lot of shots.”

One of LHS’s miscues came underneath the hoop. On multiple occasions, the likes of Oestereich and Morgan had open chances to put the ball inside the basket — only to watch the ball roll off the rim.

“I think we were rushing a little bit,” Terrones said. “We’ve got to make those close ones, especially when we have the size advantage like we did today. But all we could do is bounce back now.”

And Terrones concludes the Braves have had to adjust without top scorer Andrew Villa, who is likely out for the rest of the season after suffering a knee injury at the Shafter Tournament.

“He was able to create a lot for us,” Terrones said. “We’ve just got to find some guys who can step up and become a guy who can become a creator. We’ve got to keep working on it and keep getting better.”

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