OAKDALE—Sonora Wildcat head coach Rick Francis is known for many things other than winning basketball games. Chief among them are conditioning his athletes.
On Friday that conditioning came in real handy.
Playing arch-rival Oakdale with five players out of the lineup due to injury or illness, including two of the team’s top performers Ben Bates and Nick Mays, the Wildcats went into a hostile environment and came out with a 51-46 victory.
“We were breathing hard tonight,” said Mark Relei. “We’d go out and get like a three-minute break and then come right back in. But,” the senior added with a wry smile, “we condition a lot. So that paid off for us tonight.”
“That was really a super team victory tonight,” said Francis postgame in the visiting locker room. “Being short-handed with two of our better players out and a couple of guys hurt — that was a nice win. I was nervous coming in.”
With the Wildcats leading 45-44 an 51 seconds remaining, Curtis Kellogg scored the final six points for Sonora (15-10, 8-6 Valley Oak League). He drove, spun into the lane and canned a jumper. A few moments later, he coolly drained all four of his free throws in the final 19 seconds to seal the victory.
“It seems like a different guy steps up each game for us,” said Francis. “Tonight it was Curtis and Curtis loves those types of situations where the game is on the line. He always wants to be in there. Tonight on the free throw line he had ice running through his veins — those were huge.
“Today before the game during sixth period, everybody had to shoot 100 free throws. (Austin) Poe shot 91 percent and Kellogg shot 86 percent. Those are the two guys you want on the line at the end of the game.”
“It was an awesome win — it’s always good to beat Oakdale,” said Relei. “It’s always good to play them twice and beat them twice. I loved playing in here tonight. The fans did their yelling and I kind of fed off that. The more they yell, the more fired up I get and the more I wanna score or make a good play. We fed off their fans’ energy.”
By winning their final two games, the Wildcats jumped three spots from last weeks’ No. 7 ranking and claimed the No. 4 seed in the Sac-Joaquin Section Division IV 2012 Championships.
They will host No. 13 Bear River (11-14, 4-6 Pioneer Valley League) on Wednesday at 7 p.m. Should Sonora advance, they would host another playoff contest on Friday.
To earn that No. 4 seed, the Wildcats had several players make key plays in the fourth quarter on Friday.
Jack Gardella smoothly drained a 16-foot fadeaway with a defender’s hand in his face for a brief 33-31 lead with 5:55 left.
Relei followed with a layup off an assist from Gardella for a 35-33 lead.
The Wildcats finally took the lead for good when Kellogg beat his defender off the dribble, made a nifty entry pass to Tayler Thompson who converted the layup and got fouled. Thompson hit the free throw for a 38-35 lead.
With the Cats leading 40-38, Poe canned a trey from the wing with 2:56 left to provide a small amount of breathing room.
“I thought we played real well tonight,” said Kellogg who scored 12 points, all in the second half, including 6-of-6 from the line. “We knew we were gonna be coming into a hostile atmosphere and it was gonna be loud. We feel we’re a better team than Oakdale but anything can happen when you’re playing your rival. It’s always gonna be tough and, in front of their fans, they played their butts off. Our big guys down low played real well. We got some clutch plays outside with Poe, Jack played real well and Josh (Dudley) handled the ball real well. It was a total team effort tonight.”
Thompson, the Wildcats’ leading scorer (10.2) and rebounder (7.8) this season, was again tough on both ends of the floor.
Thompson scored a team-high 17 points, mostly on layups where he went right at the hoop, and grabbed a team-high 12 rebounds.
“I thought Tayler was a monster inside,” said Francis. “And we had some great assist-passes to him a number of times.”
The game was closely-contested throughout. Thompson and Relei hit baskets in the final 18 seconds of the first quarter to give the Wildcats a 10-7 lead after the first eight minutes.
Trailing 18-12 with 4:13 left in the first half, Jeff Storey capped a 9-0 Sonora run with a 3-pointer to give the Wildcats a 21-18 lead at halftime.
Oakdale, like it did in its first meeting with Sonora, went to the press in the second half. Unlike the first meeting, the press didn’t phase the Wildcats.
“At the beginning of this week, we worked almost the whole practice on press break,” said Sonora guard Josh Dudley. “Coach worked us pretty hard. We did well breaking the press tonight.”
“They really troubled us with the press the last game,” said Kellogg. “They got after us in the third and fourth quarter and we knew that was gonna happen. We worked hard in practice all week because they have a good press. They go after that ball real well. We just wanted to take care of the ball, get it into the front court and once we got the ball there, we knew we’d be alright.”
“Their press wasn’t a problem for us at all,” said Thompson. “Coach did a really good job in practice of preparing us. The guards broke the press really well and made good passes.”
On the night for Sonora, Relei scored 10 points and grabbed seven rebounds, Gardella scored four points, grabbed four rebounds, made two steals, dished an assist and made a block and Dudley, Kellogg and Poe added two assists each. Sonora hit 9-of-11 free throws, including all nine second-half attempts.
“We’ve been really struggling from the line, so tonight was huge,” said Francis. “We’ve been in the 50-percent range which is horrible. So if we can turn this around for playoffs, we might be a team to be reckoned with.”