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Cougar Varsity Boys Headed To Hoop Semifinals
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Taking down Linden and Colfax in the opening rounds, Escalon heads to Tokay High School on Wednesday, March 2 for a semifinal game against second seed Encina in the Sac-Joaquin Section Division IV boys basketball playoffs.

Both of the games this week were played in Cougar country, the boys hosting Linden in the opening round on Wednesday and then Colfax - the defending Section champion - on Friday night.

"In my time here, we haven't gotten to a second round playoff game," coach Mike Backovich said of the solid 71-50 win against Linden on Feb. 23.

The Cougars opened up strong, taking an 18-9 lead in the first quarter against the visiting Lions. For many players, it was the opportunity to get some revenge, payback for the Linden squad knocking the Cougars out of the football playoffs. Several of the same players were suited up for basketball on both sides and that was not lost on the Cougars or their fans.

"The first time was good," player Anthony Suniga said following the victory, noting that the Cougars had played the Lions during the regular season as well and won that game. "This second time was even better, we've been wanting to beat them since football."

Backovich agreed that he used the revenge card as a motivator and knew that the crowd would respond as well, supporting the Cougar players.

"I tried to lobby that a little bit, I knew it would bring some guys out of the woodwork," said Backovich. "We talked about keeping our composure and we played great defense again, Marc (Backovich) took their best player out of it, Marc and Marcus Savage did a great job taking care of their two big scoring guys."

The Linden coach was a little less composed, charging on to the court at one point to protest a call and getting slapped with a technical foul.

Steve Gentry, meanwhile, provided a huge force for the Cougars inside and out, hitting four three-pointers and dumping in six baskets underneath. He also went 2-for-5 from the free throw line to score 26 points on the night, leading a quartet of double-digit scorers. Grant Goedhart had 14, Backovich and Savage each had 10.

"They like to sit inside with their post defenders," Backovich said, noting that Gentry still was strong underneath and opted for the outside shot when it was available.

"We're better than they are, that's all there was to it," Backovich said.

The crowd again was raucous, with several supporters showing their colors and bringing out the rally towels, starting with chants of "Start the bus!" midway through the fourth quarter.

Escalon led 34-21 at the half and then really pulled away with a huge 21-10 scoring edge in the third, allowing several of the second unit players to get on the court in the second half.

"Our administration was great in letting our kids have some good, clean fun," Backovich said of the face-painting, towel-waving section.

It was a mob scene following the game, fans pouring on to the court to share congratulations with the team.

"This was major big," a smiling Marc Backovich said. "We're playing confident right now, we're not going to let teams like this get in the way."

The senior added that the squad plays well together because many of them have been on the court since fourth grade, playing on the same team.

"We don't have one main scorer," he added. "Nobody's selfish, we have depth and we're really like a family, we're all brothers."

High point man Gentry agreed that the win over Linden was pretty special.

"It was tough losing that game," he said of ending the football season at Linden. "This was sweet."

Andrew Beam, also a member of the football and basketball teams, was quick to join in.

"We definitely got our revenge," he said. "It was payback."

Friday night, the squad hosted another playoff game, this one taking on the much taller Colfax squad. They prevailed in a 63-58 contest, defeating the defending Section champions.

After a 9-8 Escalon edge in the opening quarter, Colfax outscored them by a point, 15-14, in the second to send the teams to the locker rooms at halftime in a 23-23 tie.

"They are a very, very well coached fundamental team," Backovich explained. "We knew that going in, they could do it all. "

Defense proved to be the key for Escalon again and Backovich said his players really stepped up to make it to the next level.

"Steve picked up two quick fouls in the third and that put us in a bind," he said. "But Marc came on and scored 18 of his 25 points in the second half, Andrew Beam provided a spark on defense, he rejected everything inside."

The Cougars got a little breathing room with a 20-11 scoring edge in the third quarter, then held off Colfax down the stretch.

"Our kids played exceptionally well defensively and offensively, everybody was passing the ball well," Backovich said. "It was one of those nights where our guys couldn't be denied. You just had the feeling they were going to win, no matter what."

Coming on strong late in the game, Gentry hit 5-for-7 from the free throw line to help seal the win in the fourth quarter.

"This was a great victory and our fans were just amazing," said Backovich. "It's the first time since 1976 that we've had a team get back to Tokay."

That will be the site for this evening's (Wednesday) game in the semifinals, with the winner of the Escalon - Encina match going to Arco Arena on Saturday for the finals.

"They are a very athletic team and they were the number two seed," Backovich said.

Ripon went in number one and will face off with number four Patterson in the other semifinal. Encina, number two, plays number three Escalon for the right to move on.

"The top four seeds are still playing and I guess that's the way it should be," Backovich said.

Game time Wednesday at Tokay High in Lodi is 7:30 p.m. If victorious there, the Cougars will take the court at 3:30 p.m. Saturday, March 5 in the Section finals.