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Cougars Shock Indians In Championship Game
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Throw everything out the window.

Forget that Escalon wasn't supposed to beat second seed Encina. Forget that the Cougars were just supposed to cower and demure to top seeded Ripon, a team that admittedly had embarrassed them in two previous meetings this season.

Forget all that.

Postseason is the great equalizer and Escalon's varsity Cougars took their devoted basketball fans on the ride of their lives, upsetting Encina in Wednesday's semifinal match at Tokay High School in Lodi and then shocking the number one ranked Indians for the Sac-Joaquin Section Division IV championship Saturday at Arco Arena.

"This is what we get up for," said an ecstatic Marc Backovich as he and his Cougar teammates answered questions at a post-game press conference after their lopsided 62-34 win over Ripon in Sacramento. "This whole group wasn't going to let any team get in our way."

The sentiment was the same Wednesday night in Lodi, as the number three seeded Cougars squared off against the Encina Bulldogs for the right to advance to the title game.

Encina came out strong and fast, the quicker, more athletic team easing out to a 13-8 lead in the first quarter. The Cougars were cold early, shots clanking off the rim or sailing past the basket as they struggled to get the range, playing on a larger stage.

Escalon, in fact, was held scoreless from the floor until Brian Beeman hit a free throw midway through the first quarter. A 3-pointer from Steve Gentry at the 2:46 mark cut the Encina lead to 9-4 but the Cougars still struggled offensively in the early going. A tenacious, full court, in-your-face defense by the Bulldogs seemed to shake up the Cougars but they pressed on and outscored Encina 10-8 in the second quarter to trail by just three points, 21-18, at halftime.

Coming out with resolve in the second half, the Cougars battled away and cut the Encina lead to a single basket with just under 10 seconds left in the third quarter. Backovich was fouled from 3-point range and made the Bulldogs pay, calmly sinking each free throw to make it a 37-35 Encina lead.

The back-and-forth battled continued in the fourth quarter, Encina going up by five points with 5:51 to play. But a foul that put Gentry at the line saw him sink both and then he tied it on a 3-pointer with 5:03 to play. After Encina returned the favor, going up 42-40 on a pair of free throws, it was a 3-pointer from Grant Goedhart that gave Escalon its first lead of the game, propelling the Cougars to a 43-42 edge with 3:05 to play.

They never trailed again, playing off the enthusiasm and excitement of the crowd to keep Encina at bay and come away with the 48-44 victory.

"You can't describe it," Marc Backovich said as he was surrounded by well wishers on the court at Tokay. "We knew it was going to be a close game, I think they looked down on us...what a surprise."

Though the players said they never really relaxed until the final buzzer sounded, Gentry said there was a sense of victory once they finally took the lead late in the game.

"We felt good from there," he said. "We took off."

Backovich added that the team has been together so many years - playing since grade school - that they knew it couldn't end in Lodi.

"There was no way this was going to be our last game," he said. "We're not ready to be done yet."

Goedhart - who hit the go-ahead 3-pointer - agreed.

"We knew once we got the lead, we could put them away," he explained. "We knew they were good, that it would take one of our best games."

Marcus Savage declared himself "speechless" after the contest, just trying to soak it all in.

"Ever since we were little kids we've dreamed of this, playing at Arco," he said. "It seems like the odds were stacked against us."

But the Cougars sent the higher seeded Bulldogs packing and coach Mike Backovich said the crowd had a lot to do with bringing the victory home.

"It was just wild," he said. "That big, huge environment of the gym there at Tokay and I have a video, when our kids won, it was like a mudslide, that's how the fans came out, they poured onto the floor, it was a wild, wild scene."

The coach also praised his team's defense, holding Encina to just 44 points on the night.

"Athletically, they were faster, quicker than us," he said. "Grant hit that huge, huge basket to put us up and our free throw shooting was excellent."

Escalon was a point better than Encina, 17-16, in the third quarter and put in 13 points in the final frame to seven for the Bulldogs.

Gentry poured in 19 points on the night to lead the Cougars, Goedhart put in 11 and seven different players got on the board.

Wednesday night's win - with Ripon defeating Patterson in the next game at Tokay - put the Trans-Valley League rivals in the championship game Saturday at Arco. Ripon went in with a 29-1 record and the top seed, Escalon went in at 22-7 with the number three seed.

"The one thing you find out, you learn the character of your team after a loss," coach Backovich explained. "We hadn't played Ripon in a while but we got embarrassed by them twice and we weren't going to Arco to be their whipping block.

"They didn't think we would play them, but we did."

Fan support for Escalon was again huge, the student cheering section a virtual sea of purple and gold, and plenty of parents and community members there to cheer on the varsity boys as well.

Ripon looked as though they came in expecting an easy win - they dumped the Cougars 70-37 the last time the two teams met - but this time it was different. Both games in league, the Cougars tried to contain the Indians in man-to-man but Backovich said that was the main thing he had to change.

"I'm not bullheaded enough to think it will work this time when it didn't work twice before," he said, noting that the Cougars went to a zone defense.

Admittedly, Backovich is not a "zone man" but he said it was the only option here.

"We had to stop them from beating us up inside," coach Backovich explained. "We tried not to let them get the ball to the high post or the low post, we wanted to make them shoot outside."

The teams battled through an even first quarter, Escalon getting on the board first with a bucket from Gentry at the 6:47 mark. He was fouled on the shot and sank the free throw, giving Escalon an early 3-0 lead. Gentry finished with 19 points, leading a trio of Cougars in double figures. Backovich put in 16, Savage had 15.

Ripon led the game after one quarter, 12-11, but the Cougars started to take control in the second and took a 27-21 lead into the locker room at the half.

It was no contest in the second half. The Cougars worked the ball around like the proverbial well-oiled machine and had their fair share of steals and blocked shots, holding the Indians to a mere six points in the third quarter while they ran off 18. That gave the Cougars a 45-27 lead entering the fourth and final period and the fans could sense the win, cheering louder with each Cougar bucket.

As Ripon stumbled in shock, the Cougars ran the lead to 52-29 with 4:30 to play and Backovich started to pull his starters to get some of his second unit players in for a chance on the court. The celebration started early in the stands and on the bench as the Cougars coasted to the 62-34 victory and claimed their first-ever Division IV championship. It was their first trip to a championship game in basketball since 1976, when that team claimed the Division II crown in a game at Lodi.

Backovich said Ripon shooters were off and they were without a starting player - Justin Graham - but he and his players agreed that it was the desire to win that lifted the Cougars past the top seeded Indians.

"A ton of guys stepped up, good things happen to good people and these kids are good people," Backovich said in the post-game press conference. "Maybe the zone was a surprise, but they're a good team. I have so much respect for them, that team, they're deadly."

For Escalon, however, the dream of a Section championship was a dream that would not die. And as the team posed happily - at center court in Arco Arena, the biggest stage of their lives - with their division pennant displayed proudly, it was a dream come true.