By KEVIN SAULS
The first real test of its mettle has arrived for the Sonora High School boys' basketball team.
After blowing a 10-point lead in the last four minutes and losing to archrival Oakdale 53-49 on Friday night at Bud Castle Gym, the defending-champion Wildcats (10-8, 4-1 Valley Oak League), face a must-win road game Wednesday against first-place East Union of Manteca (13-6, 5-0).
"We'll see how we respond," Sonora coach Rick Francis said in the moments following the Oakdale game, which was played before a standing-room-only crowd at Bud Castle Gym.
After having its way with Oakdale (14-5, 4-1) for much of the night, Sonora didn't respond well under pressure down the stretch. The Wildcats took some ill-advised 3-point shots instead of working the clock, seemed to forget where their bread is buttered, and committed a spate critical turnovers.
They got outscored 14-1 between the 4:04 and 59-second marks of the final period to fall from a 45-35 lead to a 49-46 deficit as their fans watched in agony. Junior guard Zach Dyer restored some hope by tying it 49-49 on a 3-pointer from the right wing with 30 seconds left, by Oakdale star Ryan Stevenson easily scored on a one-one-one move in the key to put the Mustangs back on top 51-49 with 16 seconds left.
Sonora, hoping to duplicate its late 50-49 victory over Sierra from two nights earlier, called timeout with 12 seconds left to set up a play, but guard Rob Hoyt's 3-pointer from the left angle went out of bounds.
Oakdale inbounded with five seconds left and went deep to its other star, Josh Kitchen, for a clinching layup at the buzzer. The player who threw the pass was Chris Zellmer, the Mustangs' quarterback in football,
who had barely played otherwise.
"We played great defense and made a few shots at the end," Oakdale coach Nathan Rien said. "We had to have this one."