By DAN GOLDMAN
SACRAMENTO If the Columbia College basketball team was disappointed to open the Northern California playoffs away from Oak Pavilion, it will be more than happy to hit the road for the second round.
Forced to open the postseason at 14th-seeded American River College (16-16) on Friday night despite having more overall and conference wins than the Beavers, No. 19 Columbia (20-12) proved the seeding committee wrong the only way it could by going into the state capitol and emerging with a 79-78 victory in a see-saw affair.
"We'll take it," Columbia coach Andy Vasher. "We're just glad to get out of here with a win. American River is a big, physical team, but we passed the ball well late and had the right guys taking shots at the right time."
The Claim Jumpers' victory means they will once again be on the road Wednesday night when they travel to Pleasant Hill to take on No. 3 Diablo Valley (32-2). The Vikings beat No. 30 Porterville 64-45 on Saturday in their first-round game (see playoff brackets on page 4B).
The Jumpers' berth in the second round was only secured in the closing seconds against American River when Mike Smith and Derek Olich came up big at the free-throw line.
With Columbia leading 75-74, Smith (career-high 15 points, 11 above his season average) capped his finest all-around game in a Jumpers' uniform by hitting both ends of a one-and-one opportunity, upping the Columbia lead to 77-74 with 24.7 seconds left.
After the Beavers' Damian Carter cut Columbia's lead back to a single point on a dunk off an offensive rebound with 13.7 seconds remaining, Dunhill Verceles committed ARC's 10th team foul when he grabbed Olich before Columbia's Talin Zimmer could even inbound the ball.
Despite feeling the effects of an injured wrist that contributed to his 2-for-11 shooting night from the field, Olich (nine points, seven assists) managed to shake off the injury and calmly sank both free throws, pushing Columbia's lead back to 79-76.
Both Derek and Mike really played well," Vasher said. "Derek didn't do a lot of scoring, but did a great job defensively, and Mike did a good job of playing within himself."
With ARC needing three points on its final possession to force the game into overtime, Marlow Rockwell (23 points) inexplicably rebounded a missed 3-pointer by Carter and sank a six-footer in the lane with 0:00.8 (8/10 of a second) remaining on the clock, leaving the Beavers one point short at 79-78.
Although American River managed to delay the inevitable by calling timeout before the clock ran out, Zimmer successfully inbounded the ball to Kevin Massey, who passed back to Zimmer as time expired on the Beavers' season.
That the game ended with the ball in Zimmer's hands only seemed right considering he learned just hours earlier that his grandfather had passed away Friday morning.
Despite carrying that burden of grief on his shoulders, Zimmer came through with one of his best performances of the season, slashing his way to the basket numerous times en route to a team-high 21 points on 9-for-12 shooting.
"I didn't want it to affect me too much during the game," Zimmer said. "I just wanted to do what I can do every night.
"Their big guys were kind of slow they didn't have guys quick enough to guard me."
Slow though they might have been, the Beavers' height advantage showed up in the rebounding column and in post scoring. With Sam Henning grabbing a game-high 14 rebounds, ARC had a 31-21 rebounding advantage over the Jumpers, and scored 17 of their 34 field goals on layups.
"They are definitely big and physical," Vasher said. "Maybe we needed to be more physical inside."
But with the Jumpers' edge in perimeter shooting (seven 3-pointers to ARC's one), neither team was able to gain an upper hand.
The Jumpers and Beavers were so evenly matched that neither team led by more than five points and there were 16 lead changes and 15 ties.
Ben Hibbing and Massey also scored in double figures for Columbia with 15 and 14 points, respectively. Massey also pulled down a game-high seven rebounds for the Jumpers.
Joining Rockwell in double figures for ARC were Carter and Henning with 16 points apiece.
The winner of Wednesday's Columbia-Diablo Valley game plays Saturday against either No. 6 San Jose (27-7) or No. 11 San Francisco (19-13) for a berth in the State Final Eight, which begins March 13 at the University of San Diego.
Columbia and Diablo Valley have never met in the postseason.