FAIRFIELD — Word hasn’t gotten to fans of the Rodriguez High boys basketball team that’s it now Sleep Train Arena.
Mustang Nation chanted “Arco! Arco!” after the home team held on for a 69-64 win over Golden Valley of Merced in the quarterfinals of the Sac-Joaquin Section Division I playoffs, Friday.
Whatever the place is called, second-seeded Rodriguez is headed to the home of the Sacramento Kings to play No. 6 Merced, a 38-37 upset winner over No. 3 Franklin, in Wednesday’s semifinals. Game times will be released Saturday morning.
“It means a lot to me,” said senior forward Rishod Abraham, the Monticello Empire League’s Player of the Year, of heading to Sleep Train. “It’s always been my dream.”
“The feeling is indescribable,” said senior post Tim Moore. “There’s no words for it. It was my best game of the playoffs. It’s crazy.”
Moore’s best game included helping to get 6-foot-7 Joshua Sykes into early and enduring foul trouble.
Sykes had two baskets in each quarter for 16 points, with three resounding dunks, and was headed to double-digits in blocks before being forced to the bench in the first, second and third quarters because of fouls.
“We challenged Tim in practice,” Rodriguez coach Nate Rankin said. “He had to play (tough defense) on No. 2 (Sykes).”
The Mustangs (24-2) helped their cause by not falling behind by 10 or more any point of the game, a habit they’ve gotten into this season.
They trailed by five points three times in the first quarter, but scored five straight points to take a 16-15 lead after the first eight minutes. Half of those points were by Abraham, who finished with a team-high 16.
Rodriguez then made it 11 straight points by scoring the first six of the second quarter, only to have seventh-seeded Golden Valley (22-7) score six in a row to tie it at 21.
There were three ties and two lead changes before a Courtland Mclean tip-in with 2 seconds left put the Mustangs up 35-34 at the half.
The third quarter was just as wild with three ties and four lead changes before two free throws by Armani Reed put Rodriguez ahead to stay at 45-43 with 3:49 to go in the period.
The Mustangs were up 53-49 heading into the fourth quarter and led by seven points four times, the last at 62-55 after a Moore tip-in with 3:06 left in the game.
The Cougars refused to go away, however.
A 6-2 run capped by two Christian Carroll free throws cut the deficit to 64-61 with with 29 seconds to go.
Golden Valley then forced Rodriguez, which has had spotty foul shooting all year, to win it at the line, and the green, black and white did just that.
Kyle Williams hit two free throws and Abraham one of two before the Cougars’ Evan Stillahn drained a 3-pointer from the right side with 4 seconds remaining to make it 67-64.
Williams was fouled once more and didn’t waste the opportunity to ice the game, sinking both free throws with 3 seconds to go.
“I’ve just got to calm down and relax,” said Williams, who finished with 11 points and hit all eight of his foul shots. “I focus on one thing when I’m shooting free throws. I block out the crowd.”
After a missed desperation shot by the Cougars, Mustangs fans stormed the floor for a celebration in front of the team’s bench – while Queen’s “We Are the Champions” blared over the PA system.
Of course, any championship is two wins away as the Mustangs make their first trip back to the arena formerly known as Arco since losing to Folsom on a shot at the buzzer in the 2008 SJS Division I title game.
“I’m proud of the kids,” Rankin said. “That was Rodriguez ball we played.”
And now they’ll have to play it on the road, but with all the confidence in the world.
Reach Paul Farmer at 425-4646, ext. 264, or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pfarmerdr.