By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
Cougars Fall In First Round Of NorCal Tournament
Placeholder Image
When it came down to it, Pacific Grove had the height advantage and they used it well.

Escalon's varsity Cougars took the basketball court for one final time on Tuesday night, March 8, hosting the Pacific Grove Breakers in the opening round of the NorCal Tournament. The visitors went away happy, winning the game by a 64-53 decision.

"I knew those two were real good, Troy Smith and AJ Walker, we had to play a 2-3 zone to try and stop them," said Escalon coach Mike Backovich. "They played real well, we just didn't have any answers for them."

Leading the Breakers was 6-8 center AJ Walker, who has been MVP of the Mission Trails League for three years running. He dumped in 11 first quarter points and had 21 for the game, including hitting 5-for-6 from the free throw line.

"Six-eight beats 6-3 and our tallest guy is 6-3," Backovich pointed out. "They also shot incredibly well and we didn't."

Escalon did have the lead early, coming out solidly in the first quarter and taking a 19-18 edge with three 3-pointers from Grant Goedhart in the opening frame leading the way.

The teams traded baskets early in the second quarter, with Escalon going on a short run to take a 7-point lead, buckets from Marcus Savage after a steal, a score by Andrew Beam underneath, with a free throw to follow for a 33-26 Cougar lead.

Pacific Grove answered, running off a few baskets and capping the comeback with a steal and shot by Matt Crawford to go up 35-33. A 3-point shot by Anthony Suniga at the buzzer fell short, leaving Pacific Grove with the slight halftime advantage.

Backovich said several factors figured in to the loss, including the hot shooting by the Breakers compared to the unusually cold night from the floor for the Cougars. With the 6-8 Walker spending much of his time camped underneath, the Breakers were effective in getting the ball in to him for the easy points.

"We're tired," admitted Backovich. "It doesn't mean they're not but for us, I think there was nothing else there...they hit shots we didn't, we're a man team that played zone and that takes you out of your rhythm a little bit but that's the nature of the playoffs, we just had no answers for number 4 (Smith) and no answers for 44 (Walker)."

Pacific Grove came in with a 23-4 mark, had a perfect 14-0 season in the Mission Trails League and were Section runner-ups in the Central Coast Section.

Neither team scored early in the second half, Escalon got the first two buckets from Steve Gentry, giving the Cougars the 37-35 lead with about six minutes to go in the third. But Pacific Grove again answered and went on a run, rattling off four quick baskets to go up 43-37. The Breakers also took advantage of their free throw opportunities, sinking 16-of-18 on the night.

They kept Escalon at bay, going up 50-42 by the end of the third and then slowly pulled away in the fourth. Shots wouldn't fall for the Cougars and they couldn't draw many fouls, forced to start fouling the visitors themselves as time clicked off the clock.

Three free throws by Goedhart, fouled while shooting from 3-point range, trimmed the deficit to 60-53 with 36 seconds to play, but the Cougars could get no closer and Pacific Grove converted on their final four three throws in the closing seconds to seal the win.

"We got into a little foul trouble with Brian (Beeman) and Grant (Goedhart) and that hurt us, but I don't think we took good care of the ball," admitted Backovich. "But we got a ton of mileage out of this team, that's the very best we could have done."

Walker had 21 points to lead his team in the win, Smith added 20. Escalon had two players in double figures, Goedhart notching a team-high 16 and Gentry putting in 10.

"I knew a little bit about them, a friend of mine saw them play a couple of times," said Todd Buller, Pacific Grove head coach. "We knew it would be hard here but we went to our tall guy and fed off of him.

"They had a big crowd and got a good start but I like the way our kids battled and stayed in it, we wore them down a little bit."

For the Cougars and their fans, the ending was bittersweet, as the crowd gave the varsity boys a standing ovation at game's end. Though disappointed in the loss, Backovich said it is something to put in perspective for their 23-8 season.

"Only one team now ends up happy and that's the state champion," he noted. "Every other team will lose."

With a second place showing in the Trans-Valley League and a Section championship to their name, Backovich said this year's Cougars are true champions.

"Look at the positive things we accomplished with this team, they have done more than anybody said they could," Backovich said, pointing proudly to the Section title the Cougars took in a win over TVL rival Ripon. "People call this a football town but there's news here, that this is a basketball town, too."