VILLA PARK -- The environment was just as dangerous as expected. The fight just as fierce as projected. The outcome, though, was true to form.
Showing the poise of a champion, top-seeded Ventura gave up the first nine points of the game, then roared back with a 67-53 quarterfinal victory at Villa Park.
The Cougars (27-2) won in a hostile environment against a game opponent. Had Villa Park (23-8) shot better from the field, it might have carried the momentum of the first 3-1/2 minutes to victory.
Instead, Villa Park was beaten by the team with 11 unflappable seniors—and not a single Division I college basketball recruit among them.
"It's a great win," said Dan Larson, whose team won a title in 2006 and reached the finals in 2009. "Villa Park is well-coached, very solid. A road win against a team like that is very valuable."
It's the only road game Ventura has played in the tournament, and it stands to be the only away game of the playoffs. The Cougars will host fourth-seeded Compton on Friday at Ventura College. A victory there will put them at the Anaheim Convention Center in the finals on a neutral floor.
Jared Wilson led Ventura with 20 points. Jon McMurry scored 14 and had 12 rebounds, and Dylan Houck scored 12 and had six assists.
It was Wilson's performance that salvaged the first quarter when Villa Park, after missing shots on the first two trips down the floor, reeled off nine consecutive points from Long Beach State-bound Shaquille Hunter (17 points) and freshman Luke Selway (7 points). Villa Park made five of its first eight shots, but only nine of 42 the rest of the way—a meager 21.4 percent from the field.
Wilson scored seven of his season-high 20 in the first quarter as Ventura rallied from a 13-4 deficit to make it 16-14 after eight minutes. The lead changed hands six times and Villa Park led, 26-23, when Ventura's Houck—averaging a team-high 14.5 points—caught fire. He scored twice from the corner, and after Wilson's runner, delivered a three-point basket at the wing for a 32-26 lead. Although Villa Park would pull to 32-31 at halftime, it was a lead that Ventura would keep the rest of the way.
"That was big," Wilson said. "I definitely felt we weren't going to let them back in."
In the third quarter, Villa Park's shooting troubles were terminal. The Spartans made only one of 15 shots and fell behind, 48-33. Remarkably, they were still breathing going into the fourth quarter because Robbie Manalang (15 points) made back-to-back three-pointers in the final 20 seconds to cut the deficit to 48-39.
"We got four shots from point blank and didn't make any of them, and they got separation," lamented Villa Park coach Kevin Reynolds of the decisive third quarter. "That's the thing about that (Ventura) group. They're senior-laden. You make a mistake and they're going to capitalize."
Hunter scored on a rebound and Manalang made free throws to cut the deficit to five points, 48-43, but Zach Gwin (7 assists) answered with a three-point play and Houck hit a pair of free throws to make it 53-43 with 6:03 left.
"After the first three or four minutes, we slowed down a little bit, got some open looks," Houck said of the first quarter response by his teammates. "We take pride in (passing the ball), being unselfish.
"Anybody on this team can deliver."
And they eventually did.