By Stephen Scott
EL CERRITO – At the same time El Cerrito High School head coach Michael Booker kept shaking his head in disgust, Mission coach Arnold Zelaya kept clapping his hands, exalting his team to push forward. Keep pressing. Keep shooting.
Mission played full tilt to the final buzzer but frankly, they weren’t really a match for the fourth-seeded and host Gauchos, who posted a wire-to-wire 76-62 CIF Division III state championship boys basketball tournament win on Tuesday night.
The CIF-San Francisco Section runner-ups led once, at 2-0, but couldn’t overcome 35 turnovers or a longer, equally-quick, more experienced El Cerrito squad.
The Gauchos (23-7), who got a season-high 32 points from 6-foot-3 senior wing Jabri Jenkins, rattled off a 22-7 run after Jaleel Stancil’s runner in the lane to open the game and were never truly threatened.
Even with Zelaya’s positive reinforcement and Mission’s 100 percent effort, the Bears (23-11) never closed the gap within eight points the rest of the way.
They got 14 points from Stancil, 12 by Gione Edwards and 11 from Antoine Porter.
“That’s an awfully good team we just lost to,” Zelaya said. “We played to the buzzer and do what we do. They were just better at it than we are.”
Besides their quickness and defensive pressure, the Gauchos had shot blockers all around, especially 6-7 senior Eric Nelson, who swatted away five shots in the first period alone before getting in foul trouble.
The pesky Bears seemed to bother El Cerrito with their physical play, particularly in the interior. The Gauchos missed at least 10 layups. Some were contested. Others were not.
“We make those layups and this was probably never close at all,” Booker said. “But I knew Mission was very scrappy and they’d never quit. I’d seen them three times before. They made things very difficult on us.”
Mission’s physical play also got El Cerrito in serious foul trouble. Two players fouled out and the Bears connected on 23-of-29 free throw attempts.
The lead climbed to 19 three times in the third quarter, but when Mission’s tenacious Davonta Gaines opened the fourth quarter with a pair of three-point plays and Stancil made a tough hanging layup, the Bears climbed to within 54-44 with 6:06 remaining.
“We kept hanging around and just playing hard,” Zelaya said. “These guys won’t back down from anyone.”
When El Cerrito answered with a 6-0 run, most teams might wilt, but Mission just fought right back with a 6-0 run of its own.
It’s the same resiliency the Bears showed after starting the season 0-5. They had lost seven seniors from last year’s championship team and most thought they’d simply limp and struggle through a rebuilding season.
Instead they rallied to win the Academic Athletic Association’s Lang Division with a 15-1 record, before losing in the section championship game on Friday to Washington 75-72.
El Cerrito eventually pulled away in this one, but Edwards drilled a 3-pointer, Porter drove the lane for three consecutive interior hoops and the team’s last basket of the season was an emphatic slam dunk by senior co-captain Alec Tatum.
It was a fitting and symbolic finish to a successful season.
“We went down together as brothers,” said Stancil, a 5-8 senior point guard. “We stuck together when things were tough earlier in the year and we stuck through it tonight and finished strong. I’m going to miss these guys and the coaches.”
Good news for Mission fans is that with three sophomores and six juniors returning, Zelaya has a lot to work with next season.
“It was a very successful season,” he said. “I’m proud of every one of these guys.”
Jaleel Stancil – 14
Gione Edwards – 12
Antoine Porter – 11
Davonta Gaines – 6
Alec Tatum – 6
Jabri Jenkins – 32
Jamontee Condor – 15
Justin Johnson – 10
Bobby Syvanthong – 8
Marcellus Pippins – 6