With a player like Duke’s Marvin Bagley, it was supposed to be last year’s team at Sierra Canyon going to the CIF Open Division state final. The Trailblazers booked their ticket to this year’s final with a come-from-behind win over Etiwanda. In the CIF NorCal Open title game, Sheldon of Sacramento won its second regional title and erased the sour taste of losing in the same game one year ago with a gritty win over favored Bishop O’Dowd of Oakland.
For writeups of the two Division I boys regional title games and for scores from the other divisions, CLICK HERE.
(Harold Abend contributed to this report by writing about the NorCal Open Division)
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The team at Sierra Canyon of Chatsworth started its season nationally ranked and with much fanfare for having a roster filled with sons of famous NBA players. The Trailblazers had plenty of talent, and a talented junior — Cassius Stanley — to ease into the lineup after the 30-day sit-out period.
Along the way, Sierra Canyon has had plenty of highs and some lows (including gut-wrenching regular season overtime losses to Shadow Mountain of Phoenix and Bishop Gorman of Las Vegas and a two-point setback to Mater Dei of Santa Ana in the CIF Southern Section Open title game) but the state No. 1 Trailblazers are definitely on a high after knocking off No. 3 Etiwanda, 58-55, in the CIF Southern California Open Division final on Saturday before 3,732 at the Pyramid in Long Beach.
“This is big to overcome the loss to Mater Dei and we knew we would be coming back here (to the Pyramid) so it was definitely motivation to get back,” said junior forward K.J. Martin, who scored 11 points, grabbed seven rebounds and gave Sierra Canyon the lead for good (48-47) with 2:01 remaining on two free throws. “We definitely didn’t want to have that feeling again of losing here.”
Although Martin gave Sierra Canyon (26-4) a lead it wouldn’t relinquish, the ending was filled with plenty of drama, which is right on par for a team that has participated in some wild endings, not to mention being short-handed and using multiple lineups throughout the season. Playing Etiwanda on Saturday was no different since Stanley didn’t play after the 4:20 mark of the second quarter. On a wild sequence, he was fouled, flipped forward and landed on his neck and head, all while making a driving lay-up.
There is no early word if Stanley will play next Saturday night in the CIF Open Division state title game against Sheldon of Sacramento after the hard spill. As for as getting there, it was no Stanley, no problem, as Scottie Pippen Jr. stepped up and had a fantastic offensive game to propel Sierra Canyon its first CIF Open Division title game appearance.
After Martin’s two free throws, he came up with a steal and Pippen Jr. made a lay-up to give the Trailblazers a 50-47 lead with 1:34 remaining. After a defensive stop and rebound, Martin got fouled on a lay-up on the other end to complete the conventional 3-point play and give his team a 53-47 lead with 35 seconds remaining.
Etiwanda was not done yet.
Senior guard Krystian Wilson made two free throws with 26 seconds remaining. With 19 seconds left, the worst possible scenario happened for Sierra Canyon: Martin stopped the clock after he fouled on a three-point shot and that shooter was Pepperdine-bound Kessler Edwards. He nailed all three of his attempts to make the score 55-52 after Pippen had given Sierra Canyon a 55-49 lead after canning two free throws.
Pippen extended the lead to four points by making one free throw with 19 seconds remaining before Wilson made a clutch 3-pointer to cut Etiwanda’s deficit to one point (56-55) with nine seconds left. Sierra Canyon senior Duane Washington Jr. then made two free throws to account for the final points with five seconds left. Wison’s last ditch 3-point attempt from deep was straight but just short right before the final buzzer.
Both teams were vying for their first spot in a CIF Open Division state final, and with Sierra Canyon and Sheldon advancing to next weekend’s championship game, it assures a first-time winner in the state’s highest classification. For Sierra Canyon, it was just another hump to get over after having to go on the road to begin the CIFSS Open Division playoffs despite being a nationally-ranked club. Sierra Canyon entered this game No. 23 nationally in the FAB 50 rankings.
“We have been fighting and growing together all year long,” said first year Sierra Canyon coach Andre Chevalier, an assistant to former coach Ty Nichols. “When things get tough, the guys find a way to come together to get a good result.”
Pippen Jr. was aggressive offensively against Etiwanda’s vaunted man-to-man defense and finished with a team-high 22 points, including 9-of-11 free throws. Washington Jr. finished with 18 points and seven rebounds.
“Scottie played big and we knew we had a mismatch in quickness with No. 0 (Elijah Harkless) on him,” Martin said.
For Etiwanda (30-4) the result was a tough pill to swallow, as the No. 45 ranked team in the FAB 50 fell to 0-3 in regional final appearances. In 2004, with future NBA players Darren Collison and Jeff Pendergraph (Ayres) in the lineup, the Eagles lost in overtime to eventual D1 state champ L.A. Fairfax at the now defunct Los Angeles Sports Arena. After winning the coveted 2012-13 CIF Southern Section Division I-AA crown in the last year before the section went to its own open division format, the Eagles were routed by the Mater Dei of Santa Ana in Ontario.
Edwards scored a game-high 25 points and also had a game-high 12 rebounds. He also made all 10 of his free throw attempts. Harkless was Etiwanda’s other double-digit scorer with 14 points and he had 10 rebounds.
The current No. 1 ranked team in the state will make its second CIF state final appearance and is now 2-1 in regional final appearances. The Trailblazers won the 2015 D5 state title when the nucleus of last year’s team (which Chevalier coached in the playoffs) were sophomores. That group had transfer Marvin Bagley (the current Duke All-American) join it for last season but went out in an upset in the first round of the SoCal Open Division. In 2011, Sierra Canyon lost to St. Bernard of Playa Del Rey in the SoCal D5 final.
In the NorCal Open Division title game:
Sheldon (Sacramento) 61,
Bishop O’Dowd (Oakland) 60
Close games are nothing new for the Huskies, but there’s some novelty to winning one where their previous season ended.
A year after their hopes were dashed by squandering a late lead in this same game in a loss to Woodcreek of Roseville, this time it was the Huskies who were on the happy side of the comeback, beating Bishop O’Dowd before a spirited crowd at the Leavey Center.
“We’ve been going through it all year,” said Sheldon’s Justin Nguyen, who scored 10 points despite getting battered repeatedly, including a scary collision that caused him to miss nearly half of the third quarter.
Facing a late four-point deficit, Sheldon (29-5) tied the game at 57 on a Nguyen basket with 1:17 left, took the lead on a Dale Currie drive to the hoop and, following an O’Dowd turnover on an inbounds play, ran the shot clock down for Dom Johnson to find big man Ronald Agebsar for a huge alley-oop dunk.
“The plan on that play was to just get to the basket,” said head coach Joey Rollings. “Ronald’s man came to help, and he’s a great leaper, so we know that if we can get it up to him, he’s going to throw it home.”
It was nip and tuck throughout, with neither team leading by more than five at any point. Every time there was a need for a big basket, though, the fourth-seeded Huskies seemed to get it, like Currie’s huge three late in the first half that cut the lead to 22-21.
In all, there were 12 lead changes, and it would have been hard for the Dragons (27-6) to leave with many regrets if not for some critical turnovers. In addition to stepping over the line on the inbound pass after Currie gave Sheldon the lead, plays like an offensive foul and three-second call midway through the fourth quarter added up to to the Dragons’ demise.
“The turnover taking the ball out of bounds, the turnover in the key under the basket, not rebounding down the stretch and bad shot selection all were major factors,” said head coach Lou Richie, whose team started the week No. 5 in the State Top 20 and then won in the NorCal Open semifinals over No. 4 Modesto Christian.
Even with the sour conclusion to the season, it would be hard to tarnish the legacy of Washington-bound Elijah Hardy, who scored a game-high 24 with an 11-for-13 performance at the line, and Utah commit Naseem Gaskin, who added 13, as two of the top O’Dowd players ever.
“The kids played hard,” said Richie. “Naseem and Elijah had great careers. 1,500 points for Naseem, 1,200 for Elijah. They made their mark on Northern California high school basketball.”
The team with a chance to cement its legacy, though, is Sheldon, with 16 points and a game-high nine rebounds from Johnson, who will conclude his career next Saturday at the Golden 1 Center against Sierra Canyon. Currie added 13 and Kaito Williams finished with 11.
The Huskies were only No. 11 in the state coming into the week and were behind not only O’Dowd but the Modesto Christian team they lost to in another close game that decided the Sac-Joaquin Section D1 crown. They now have a chance to finish No. 1 in the only ranking that really matters — the last one.