Julian Hicks
Julian Hicks of San Marcos attacks the rim for two of his 12 points in the Royals’ win over Santa Barbara. San Marcos swept the series with the Dons and won their third straight Channel League title. (Gary Kim / Noozhawk photo)

If any game is going to prepare a boys basketball team for the postseason, it’s the clash between Santa Barbara High-San Marcos.

The crosstown rivals engaged in a fierce battle in the Channel League finale on Saturday night, and the host Royals used their size advantage, defensive pressure and scoring balance to pull away late in the second quarter for a 63-43 victory.

San Marcos finishes 9-1 in winning its third straight league title. The Royals are expected to get a home game for the first round of the CIF-SS Division 2A playoffs next week.

Santa Barbara is 5-5 and ends in fourth place in the standings. The Dons plan to petition for an at-large bid in the 3AA playoffs.

The playoff pairings will be announced on Tuesday.

Santa Barbara kept the game close in the second quarter. Will Harmon scored seven straight points off the bench to give the Dons a 20-16 lead with 5:24 left in quarter.

But San Marcos responded in a big way. Julian Hicks buried a three-pointer to start a 15-0 run through the end of the half for a 31-22 advantage.

The front-line duo of Aidan Mandel and TJ Robinson started dominating on the boards. Even if they didn’t grab the rebound, their tips allowed their teammates to pick up several loose balls and score.

San Marcos took the lead for good on a scramble play. Andre McCullough saved a ball under the basket and threw it right to Shakir Ahmad for a layup to put the Royals up 24-22.

Shakir Ahmad

Shakir Ahmad gets inside Santa Barbara’s Mikey
Denver to score two of his game-high 17 points. (Gary Kim / Noozhawk photo)

There was a scramble on the Royals’ next possession, and again Ahmad ended up with the ball for a basket.

Robinson scored 13 points and Mandel and Hicks each tallied 12 for the balanced Royals.

“We knew if we could get TJ and Aidan to control the boards and win those battles — and (Santa Barbara’s) bigs played well tonight —that we were going to have a good chance,” San Marcos coach Jelani Hicks said. “And with Shak and Julian and the other guards being pests on the defensive end and pushing the tempo, we did a good job at finishing.”

Santa Barbara coach Corey Adam was pleased how his team started out the game.

“We had solid first half,” Adam said. “(Unfortunately), we end the first half with free balls that kind of bounced right to Shakir for layups.

“The guys gave a great effort,” he added. “We have a young team, they battled hard.”

He noted the challenge playing against an experienced, senior-laden team like San Marcos.

Julian Hicks fed Robinson for a layup, Ahmad made a free throw and McCullough stole the ball in the half-court press and scored on a layup for a 31-22 halftime lead.

San Marcos kept the pressure on and crashed the boards in the third quarter. Mandel converted a three-point play after an offensive rebound to start the quarter before Andre Battle scored to end the Dons’ scoring drought, making it a 34-24 game.

Santa Barbara struggled to keep Mandel and Robinson off the boards. Mandel twice scored on offensive rebounds and Robinson finished after a missed shot to increase the San Marcos lead to 40-28.

“I just wanted to come out and be aggressive and win on our senior night,” said Mandel about his and the team’s play against the Dons. “We wanted to secure our victories over them and sweep them 2-0, and three-peat in Channel League.”

Julian Hicks was the catalyst for the Royals on defense. His fierce play disrupted Santa Barbara’s offense. The Dons were held to nine points in the third quarter and trailed 45-31.

“He was great,’ said Mandel of Hicks. “He was leading us on the court, keeping things organized and always keeping us ready to go. I don’t know where we’d be without him.”

Said coach Hicks of Julian and the team’s play: “We were active. We were highly motivated, as you can tell.”

The intense pressure from Julian Hicks and the Royals keyed an 8-2 run that expanded the lead to 51-36 with 5:23 left.

“We had flashes where we looked good against it, but we just weren’t consistent. That’s youth, right?” said Adam.

Mikey Denver scored eight points and Battle and Harmon each had seven to lead Santa Barbara in scoring.

The game got chippy down the stretch. Mandel stole the ball and was pushed from behind as he went in for a layup. He fell to the floor but got up under his own power.

A flagrant foul was called and the Santa Barbara player was taken out of the game.

Both coaches were hot after the game, accusing each side of unsportsmanlike behavior in both meetings.

Coach Hicks was pleased how hard his team played for the full 32 minutes after it had already clinched the outright title.

“We’re glad we were able to finish strong and take care of business just like we wanted to,” he said.

He’s looking for the Royals to make a good run in the playoffs.

“When we’re knocking on all cylinders, we’re tough to beat. Hopefully, Aidan is not hurt because of that fall,” he said.

Noozhawk sports editor Barry Punzal can be reached at bpunzal@noozhawk.com. Follow Noozhawk Sports on Twitter: @NoozhawkSports. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

— Noozhawk sports editor Barry Punzal can be reached at bpunzal@noozhawk.com. Follow Noozhawk Sports on Twitter: @NoozhawkSports. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.