Sonora’s Curtis Kellogg had the ball on the wing 25 feet away from the East Union basket with 2:35 left in the game and the Wildcats trailing 37-36. All five Lancer defenders had committed to his side of the floor.
SONORA’S BEN BATES (31) shoots a short jumper on Tuesday night in the Wildcats 44-40 victory over East Union at Bud Castle Gym. MAGGIE BECK/UNION DEMOCRAT
On the weak side, Ben Bates was lurking for the Wildcats.
“I saw Bens’ big ole’ arms sticking up looking at me and he kind of gave me a little look,” said Kellogg, “so I threw it towards the rim.”
“There was just no one over there,” said Bates. “I noticed that they weren’t guarding the backside real well all night, so I just told him to throw it up there.”
Kellogg lofted the pass over the top of the defense, Bates went up, latched onto the ball, laid it off the glass and the Wildcats had come all the way back from a 13-point deficit to take a 38-37 lead.
“It’s easy to make those kinds of passes to those guys,” said Kellogg, of the Wildcats’ bevy of big men. “They’re athletic, they’re big and tall and they want to go to the hoop. I just put it up there, they do all the work.”
Bates later sank a pair of free throws with 1:32 left to make it 41-38 and Jack Gardella inserted the dagger with a clutch, fadeaway 13-foot jumper near the free throw line with the shot clock winding down to make it 43-38 with 25 seconds left.
The Wildcats went on to earn their second straight Valley Oak League hoops victory, 44-40, on Tuesday night at Bud Castle Gym.
While Kellogg and Bates teamed for the go-ahead score, there were no shortage of heroes on the night for Sonora.
Moments before the Kellogg-to-Bates connection, with the Cats trailing 37-34, Jeff Storey, playing tight defense, got a hand on an attempted pass and it deflected to teammate Nick Mays.
Mays, who was dishing the ball like Magic Johnson all night, quickly tossed the rock upcourt to Austin Poe who started breaking for the hoop. Poe grabbed the ball, took two dribbles and made an off-balance layup to make it 37-36.
“Overall I was really pleased,” said Wildcat head coach Rick Francis. “We were down by quite a few there for awhile. I challenged our guys and told them, ‘If we’re gonna get back into this game, it’s gonna be with our defense. That’s what’s gonna get us back.’ And then we made a couple of adjustments on our zone offense, a couple of great passes — Curtis hit that one across court to Ben and Nick on the baseline, he kicks it inside and we get two. So we were patient enough to break down their defense and it paid off for us.”
East Union, namely Brandon Cline, jumped all over the Wildcats’ zone defense in the first eight minutes, leading 18-10.
Whizzing passes all around the perimeter, Cline hit four 3s in the opening quarter.
The defensive guru he is, Francis switched to man defense throughout the rest of the game. The strategy paralyzed the Lancers.
East Union scored just two second-quarter points, but still led 20-17 at halftime.
“I was really proud of the kids,” said Francis. “We haven’t played man defense for awhile and I thought, in the second quarter and the second half, our kids really played some great defense.”
Kellogg was assigned to guard Cline for the rest of the game and that meant stay in his back pocket. The Lancers’ leading scorer managed just two more treys and tallied 20 points. Cline’s sixth and final trey pushed the lead to 32-19, but he was turned invisible by Kellogg and the Cats in the final 12 minutes.
“Coach told me to stay in his face all night long,” said Kellogg. “If he goes to the bathroom, I’m going in there with him. If he’s chewing gum, I’m gonna know what kind of gum he’s chewing — that’s what I love to do, play man defense. I love it. Scoring is gravy on top of that, but I love playing man defense.”
“I thought that Curtis did a marvelous job on No. 15 (Cline),” said Francis. “That guy can shot the ball from downtown. I thought he took him out of the ballgame and that kind of picked everybody else up.”
“The second half Curtis played great D on him and shut him down and they couldn’t do anything,” said Mays, who dished six assists and grabbed six rebounds. “We came back, rallied and we played dominant in the second half.”
Gardella helped the Wildcats keep pace in the opening quarter, canning a pair of treys. The deadly accurate shooter finished with 10 points and four rebounds.
But the offensive star on the night was Bates. The junior scored a game-high 21 points and grabbed a game-high eight rebounds.
He scored baskets on putbacks, jumpers, layups, free throws — had the ball been twice the size, he likely still would have stuffed it through the net.
“Ben was a monster again for us,” said Francis. “I mean his work on the boards and his clutch free throw shooting was just outstanding. He’s really coming into his own.
“I also thought Nick had one of his better games. He’s been a little shy with his injury and I just kind of challenged him and said, ‘Hey, it’s time. You’re one of our better ball players. You’ve just gotta take over.’
“Then off the bench tonight, I thought we got excellent play from Poe and Storey. When Storey tipped that one there at the end, that was huge and I told him, ‘that’s not gonna show up anywhere, but that was a huge play for us.’ And Poe made that layup. I don’t know how it went in but it did. That was big.”
For Sonora, Tayler Thompson scored four points, Kellogg added four points and three assists and Mays also chipped in three points.
The Wildcats (10-6, 3-2 VOL) stand alone in third place in the VOL while East Union (10-7, 2-3) falls into a 3-way tie for fourth with Oakdale and Lathrop. The Cats will host arch-rival Oakdale on Friday at 7:15 p.m.
“I thought we showed tremendous resilience tonight,” said Kellogg. “We really fought back well. We got off to a slow start, but we showed what we’re all about and I think that this game really defines us in our season so far, just us fighting back. I thought we played tremendous tonight in the last three quarters.”