Bakersfield-Thursday night, February 17th, the Centennial Golden Hawks of Bakersfield hosted the Bullard Knights of Fresno to open up the 1st round of play in the Central Section Boys Division 1 Playoff. The Golden Hawks earned the #2 seed in Division 1, as they went 10-0 en route to winning the Southwest Yosemite League and finished the season with an overall record of 20-7. The Knights, the defending D1 Champs, entered the game as the #7 seed in Division 1, as they finished tied for 2nd place in the County-Metro league with a record of 7-3, and an overall record of 18-11. Putting seeds aside, these teams were pretty evenly matched, as both had senior leadership, underclassmen that played critical roles, shot the 3 ball with efficiency, and teams that like to push the tempo in the open court, which was evident throughout the high scoring affair. 

In the early going of the game, both teams came out playing confidently and looking to push the pace of the offense. The Golden Hawks standout sophomore Rippen Gill got the home crowd out of their seats with a two-handed transition dunk, as well as timely 3’s from senior guard Blake Dibble and junior point guard Elijah West. Not to be outdone, the Knights’ senior forward Lejaun Watts hammered down a dunk of his own, and senior guard Michael Adamyan knocked down back-to-back 3’s to silence the ecstatic home crowd. The Knights held a slight two-point lead at the end of the 1st quarter, 21-19, but the excitement of the game was just ramping up. 

Centennial’s junior forward JayJay Jones and sophomore forward/wing Jaxton Santiago provided six points apiece in the 1st half, most of which came in the second quarter, to go along with the impressive play of Gill to keep the Golden Hawks close. However, Watts continued to dominate the paint on both sides, taking charges, controlling the glass, and showing great touch around the rim, as he finished the 1st half with a game-high 18 points. The difference in the half came when senior shooting guard Tyric Herod started heating up from the perimeter, as he ended the half with a snatch-back 3-point bucket to give the Knights a 40-36 point lead at the midway point. The Golden Hawks were led by Gill’s 9 points, as their scoring was more evenly distributed amongst the roster. 

The third quarter saw the Knights grow their lead, as Herod continued to hit some tough shots from various spots on the court and Adamyan continued to contribute timely baskets, as the Golden Hawks made a conscious effort to prevent Watts from continuing his dominance around the rim. Although Centennial succeeded in limiting Watts’ scoring in the second half, as he only had 6 of his 24 points in the 2nd, the Golden Hawks had no answer for Herod, who continued to hit big shots from fifteen feet and beyond. The Knights widened their halftime lead as the third quarter came to an end, with Watts sinking a soft-touch floater to give the Knights a 7 point lead, 55-48, over the Golden Hawks. 

As the fourth quarter got underway, you could feel the tension in the gym, as the home crowd grew anxious at the prospect of being knocked out in the opening round of the playoffs. However, foul trouble to Watts and Herod reared its head early in the 4th quarter, as both had 4 fouls and Coach Amundsen was forced to sit his top two players with over 6 minutes of game time left. Centennial took advantage immediately, as Dibble connected on multiple 3’s, Jones bullied his way for a few baskets around the rim, and Gill continued his high level of play, showing off his all-around offensive skill set and shot-making ability. The Golden Hawks took the lead halfway through the fourth quarter, 68-67, before Bullard put their two seniors back in the game. Adamyan would hit a huge three to give the lead back to the Knights, as time was becoming a factor for Centennial. 

The final 30 seconds of the game would prove to be pivotal for both teams, as the Knights had the ball and were up by 2 points, 73-71. With a 3.5 second differential between the game clock and shot clock, the ball was in Herod’s hands while he looked to use up as much time as possible. As the shot clock dwindled down, Herod pump-faked left, then right, and back to his left again and put up a difficult off-balance shot from about 18 feet that went through the net and gave Bullard a 75-71 lead with 4 seconds on the game clock. Centennial heaved up the final shot, as the game came to an end and the Bullard Knights pulled off the upset over the #2 by a final of 75-71. 

Although Bakersfield basketball fans were devastated, it was truly a great game and could go down as one of the best games of the 2022 playoffs when all is said and done. The Knights were led by Herod’s 26 points and 10 assists, along with Watt’s 24 points and 11 rebounds and Adamyan’s 20 points. The Golden Hawks were led by Rippen Gill’s 21 points and 9 rebounds, Dibble’s 17 points, and Jones’ 14 points. Despite a tough opening-round loss, the Golden Hawks have shown they will be a team to contend with for the foreseeable future, as a core of their roster will be returning next season. Bullard will head to Central of Fresno to play the Grizzlies in the Division 1 Semifinals next Tuesday, a rematch of last year’s Division 1 Championship Game.