SACRAMENTO — It took them more than 21 minutes to get going, but when the Mustangs got into high gear, they weren’t about to be denied.
The second-seeded Rodriguez High boys basketball team used an 18-8 run midway through the third quarter and never looked back in a 73-68 triumph over No. 6 Merced in the Sac-Joaquin Section Division I semifinals at Sleep Train Arena, Wednesday.
The victory puts the Mustangs in their second-ever boys basketball section championship game, where they will face No. 1 Jesuit of Carmichael back at Sleep Train Arena at 8:30 p.m., Saturday. Jesuit defeated Kennedy 75-54 right after Rodriguez’s victory.
“We knew we had to come back,” said Rodriguez’s Keanu Williams, who finished with 15 points. “We couldn’t go out like that. We know we play better than that first half. We just brought (out game) up.
After trailing 21-14 after the first quarter and then 36-31 at the half, Williams admitted his team might have been little shell-shocked by playing on the floor of the NBA’s Sacramento Kings.
“We calmed down (in the second half),” Williams said. “In the first half, we were excited. It’s (Sleep Train Arena). It’s a big game. In the second half, we calmed down and started playing our game. . . . It’s crazy in that locker rook right now.”
Rodriguez coach Nate Rankin also had an explanation for Rodriguez’s slow start.
“What we didn’t do, we didn’t execute our offense and our defense,” Rankin said. “We didn’t execute that at first. In the second half, we made some adjustments. The kids starting playing with more pressure and we started running our plays. When we first came out, I’m not sure what it was, sluggishness, or whatever, or if it was associated to the court. We didn’t run our offense. Our rotations weren’t there at all. One look, trying to shoot, and we didn’t do a good job trying to block out.”
Williams wasn’t the team’s leader scorer – Rishod Abraham finished with 21 points – but Rankin knows he’s one of the players his team can count on when they need him.
“Keanu, he’s one of the captains of the team,” the coach said. “He’s been like that all year long. Keanu has been that foundation that we’ve needed all season long. For his size, pound for pound, to me, he’s one of the best ball players that I’ve seen.
After trailing by five at the half, the Mustangs came alive, putting pressure on the Bears and making it to the free throw line. They made six foul shots to open the third quarter, grabbing a 37-36 lead before Merced freshman Ulonzo Gilliam scored in the lane.
A basket by Williams gave the Mustangs a 39-38 lead with 5 minutes, 12 seconds left in the third, but Merced responded with a basket and then two free throws at the 4:27 mark.
After the team’s traded baskets and Merced leading 44-41, Rodriguez finally hit high gear.
The Mustangs scored the next eight points, including a 3-pointer by Abraham and a towering slam dunk down the lane by Courtlund Mclean to cap the run, upping Rodriguez’s advantage to 49-44.
Two free throws by the Bears stopped the Mustangs’ momentum – albeit momentarily – to cut the advantage to 49-46, but Rodriguez scored the last five points of the period to lead by eight (54-46) heading in the fourth quarter.
Merced started hot in the final period, scoring eight of the first 10 points to trim the lead to 56-53 with 6:02 to go, but the Mustangs scored six of the next eight to regain an eight-point advantage (62-54).
The Bears got within three points again (63-60) with 1:30 left, but baskets by Armani Reed and Tim Moore Jr. made the score 67-60 with 50 seconds to go.
The Mustangs the made all six of their free throws in the final 31 seconds to put the game away, though the Bears had a 3-pointer and another basket at the buzzer to make the score closer at the end.
Moore Jr. finished with 16 points and four rebounds for Rodriguez, while Mclean added six points. Williams also had eight rebounds to go with his 15 points.
Sophomore Alexander Stewart led Merced with 21 points – 12 of which came in the opening quarter – and Gilliam finished with 19. Stewart also added eight rebounds for the Bears.,
Now it’s time for to play for a section title and Rankin thinks his team is up for the challenge.
“We’ve got a shot,” Rankin said. “It’s still not over yet. . . . . This is good for the school and these kids are getting it done.”
They’ve gotten it done so far.
Reach Brian Arnold at 427-6969 or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/barnolddr.