Aidan Mandel
Aidan Mandel of San Marcos goes past Dos Pueblos defender Joe Talarico on a drive to the basket. (Gary Kim / Noozhawk photo)

Aidan Mandel was as quick with an answer as he was slicing to the basket and crashing the boards during San Marcos High School’s 74-54 win at Dos Pueblos on Saturday afternoon.

Asked after the game who should be considered the “team to beat” as the on-again, off-again COVID-19-racked Channel League season sprints to the finish with four games next week, the 6-foot-6 senior barely hesitated before saying, “We are.”

While the statement might end up on the bulletin board of some rival locker rooms, it would be hard to argue with his logic following Saturday’s dominant effort against Dos Pueblos. Despite a middling overall record of 11-11, San Marcos sits firmly atop the league at 5-1.

Shakir Ahmad

Shakir Ahmad drives inside to score two of his 15 points for San Marcos. (Gary Kim / Noozhawk photo

“We got off to a good start and I think we’re looking good,” said Mandel, one of three Royals to score in double figures Saturday. “We’ve got four games next week, including two against Santa Barbara, and we’ll see how that goes.”

Dos Pueblos, 15-8 overall and 3-3 in league, hung with the Royals for most of the first half, led by four three-pointers by junior guard Joe Talarico and highlighted by his one-handed 80-foot buzzer-beater at the end of the first quarter. That cut the Royals’ lead to 22-19. Seven points by Joaquin Riker at the end of the second quarter helped cut a 32-21 San Marcos lead to size at 36-31.

But the third quarter saw San Marcos take the game over as Mandel (14 points) and Shakir Ahmad (15) began to hammer the shorter Chargers with strong post moves, aided by the crisp passing of guards Julian Hicks and Jaden Reyes.

Even more telling was how the Royals matched their height advantage with their defensive movement inside, effectively shutting the door on interior penetration and reducing the Chargers to lower percentage shots from the outside. By the end of the third quarter, San Marcos led 60-40, and it was soon time for both teams to turn the game over to their bench players.

Julian Hicks

Julian Hicks of San Marcos drives past Matthew Zamora of Dos Pueblos. (Gary Kim / Noozhawk photo

“Our kids played hard tonight, but San Marcos played excellent defense,” noted Dos Pueblos assistant John Slavin, who was filling in for head coach Joe Zamora, who tested positive for COVID-19. “And you can’t teach height.”

Defense was, in fact, the priority for San Marcos, and has been as the Royals have mounted their drive for the league title, coach Jelani Hicks said.

“We really concentrate on taking care of the defensive end first,” he said. “The last time we played them the game was close. We allowed a lot of threes and lost track of some matchups. Today, we tried to stay on them and not allow them to get any hope.”

Riker led Dos Pueblos with 14 points, followed by Talarico with 12, Justin Stock with eight and Micah Goss with seven.

Julian Hicks hit a trio of three-pointers in the first period and finished with 13 points for San Marcos. Reyes had eight points while TJ Robinson earned praise from coach Hicks for his rebounding.

Slavin said the Chargers hope to get coach Zamora back on Wednesday for their stretch drive.