VISALIA -- Two of the boys basketball favorites in the Southwest Yosemite League tuned up for league play in different ways Monday in the MLK Showcase at College of the Sequoias.
Centennial ran its way past Fresno-Roosevelt in the event's opener, 71-57, while Liberty stifled Elk Grove-Laguna Creek defensively in a 49-37 victory.
In between, East High of the Southeast Yosemite League made it a sweep for three Kern County teams, holding off Visalia-Redwood, 57-52.
League play starts this week for all three teams; East is at Tehachapi today, while Liberty (at Bakersfield) and Centennial (at Frontier) begin SWYL play Wednesday.
A fast and furious third-quarter rally wasn't enough to completely please Centennial coach Hernan Santiago, who would have liked to see his Golden Hawks tune up for the rough-and-tumble SWYL in more dominant fashion.
"We won, but I'm not sure we were great at competing today," he said. "We've got to get better, because teams in our league are going to be prepared for us."
Still, at times, the Golden Hawks (13-4) looked dominant against Roosevelt, one of the top teams in Division III. The Rough Riders threw in five dunks and flew around the court, but Centennial also forced 26 turnovers and never let Roosevelt (15-5) get comfortable.
"They're more athletic than us, but we're going to stay in our system," Santiago said. "If teams want to run with us, let's run. That's our system; controlled chaos. But we have some sense with what we run out of it."
Derek Check scored 19 points and had 5 steals despite a flu bug and was named Player of the Game. But Santiago said with Check's minutes limited, sophomore Malcolm Johnson, who had 16 points, 8 rebounds and 3 steals played a bigger role.
"Malcolm is the glue that holds the team together right now," Santiago said. "He doesn't have to score, because he rebounds and does other things so well. But he's a guy who talks and really gets us going."
Centennial trailed briefly late in the first half, but a 9-3 run gave it a 35-30 lead at the break. It was 40-36 early in the third when the Hawks turned on the jets.
Centennial also had a 14-2 run that started with a Preston Green 3-pointer and ended with back-to-back transition buckets from Check.
Brandon Robinson added 12 points for Centennial, which opens SWYL play Wednesday at Frontier.
"We've got to get better in the halfcourt offensively and with communication on defense," Santiago said. "Everybody in our league is so good."
East 57, Visalia-Redwood 52
The Blades led from the opening tip, but what was once an 11-point lead shrunk to three in the final minutes as Redwood turned up its pressure.
Malik Nichols had the answer for East. He stole an inbounds pass with 25 seconds left, leading to a layup from Lamont Jones to stretch the lead back to 5.
Nichols then blocked a Redwood 3-point attempt on the other end, and the Blades (8-7) were able to run out the clock.
"Malik made those stops, and that really helped," East coach Milt Henderson said. "It was like, at the two-minute mark, we started playing not to lose instead of playing to win. We just needed to hold the ball."
Senior forward Fatai Eke led the way for East with 17 points, 7 rebounds and 9 blocks, including a couple of highlight-reel swats on defense and dunks on offense.
"With our team, he has to help out with ball-handling and things, but he's become so much more mature," Henderson said. "We just need to keep getting leadership out of him."
Eke, a 6-foot-7 recruit who has scholarship offers from Washington State, Cal State Bakersfield and UC Irvine, among others, scored on a three-point play to give East a 50-42 lead with four minutes left.
"A couple of years ago, we had other players I could rely on to make a big play if I couldn't," said Eke, who jumps rope and plays volleyball to work on his blocking skills. "Now I'm the guy, and it's a whole lot of pressure. I'm still getting used to it."
After Eke's and-one, Nichols scored on a drive to make it a 10-point lead. But from there, the Blades clammed up, missing three of four free throws and committing five turnovers. Riley Gerberick and Josh Carr led the comeback for Redwood (12-10) until Nichols sniffed it out.
Now the Blades prepare for title defense in the SEYL, with Garces and Tehachapi looking like serious threats.
"We still have work to do," Henderson said. "We're working on putting a whole game together. We play in spurts, but we need to make a concentrated effort to play that way the whole time."
Liberty 49, Elk Grove-Laguna Creek 37
When Michael Scott made a late 3-pointer to give Laguna Creek a 21-18 lead after a quarter, it seemed the Patriots were in for a dogfight against the Cardinals from the Sacramento area.
Then the Patriots (12-4) bunkered down in nine -- yes, nine -- different zone defenses and made life miserable for Laguna Creek, which scored just 16 more points in the final three quarters.
"We really like to grind and make people work hard," Liberty coach A.J. Shearon said. "If you shoot a high percentage against us, you'll probably beat us. But with our size and length, our defense has won the day for us lately."
Senior guard Kyle Ferreira scored 14 points to lead the way for Liberty's sometimes-limited offense, which methodically stretched out a four-point halftime lead while Laguna Creek (9-9) struggled to score without its star, Malik Pope, who has been injured all season.
"We didn't know a lot about these guys," said Shearon, who only added this game to Liberty's schedule earlier this month. "But I thought they'd struggle to generate offense as long as we weren't turning the ball over. We gave them a lot of different looks."
Liberty has won 11 of its past 12 games, the one exception a 73-66 loss to Centennial in the championship game of the Garces Holiday Hoops Classic. Those teams will play twice in SWYL play, Feb. 5 at Centennial and the regular-season finale Feb. 21 at Liberty.
"The funny thing is, I think we need to be an even better defensive team because of our issues scoring," Shearon said. "We need to be dialed in to taking away the other teams' strengths."
Centennial 71, Fresno-Roosevelt 57
CHS (13-4): Barksdale 2, Green 6, Johnson 16 (8 rebs, 3 stls), Woody 2, D. Check 19 (5 stls), Melton 8, Robinson 12, A. Check 6.
RHS (15-5): K. McCoy 16, Epperson 3, Howard 5, King 17, Williams 16 (10 rebs), R. McCoy 2.
East 57, Visalia-Redwood 52
EBHS (8-7): Nichols 4, A. Eke 5, McGraw 3, Jones 15 (8 rebs), Smith 9, Hernandez 3, Sherman 1, F. Eke 17 (7 rebs, 9 blcks).
RHS (12-10): Wall 2, Garner 4, Quintanilla 13, Guevara 2, Clays 2, Gerberick 15, Hill 2, Carr 12.
Liberty 49, Elk Grove-Laguna Creek 37
LCHS (9-9): Reed 11, Scott 3, Avery 11 (12 rebs), Gantt 2, Woods 9, Pizon 1.
LHS (12-4): Rodriquez 3, Ferreira 14, Cheney 1, Brewer 5, Barnes 8 (8 rebs), Scott 5 (8 rebs), Nerez 2, Caywood 3, Herring 8 (9 rebs).