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Varsity Boys Battling For Top Spot
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Heart, determination, hustle.

All three ingredients added up to a pair of wins for Escalon's varsity boys on the basketball court this week, taking a road game at Hilmar and celebrating Homecoming with a victory over Livingston on Friday.

At Hilmar on Tuesday, the boys came away with a 60-55 win, fending off a pesky Yellowjackets team.

"They played really well," coach Mike Backovich said of the host Hilmar squad. "Everyone is playing really well against us. They slowed down the game, used the clock, one of their priorities was to slow it down and they did that.

"Plus they hit a ton of shots."

Escalon also hit quite a few, but held just a 23-22 lead at the half. The teams battled it out in the second half, Escalon just a few points better to take the win.

"My hat's off to them," Backovich said of the effort from the host team. "We had it a little bit more in hand but they got a couple of threes from one of their players in the last two minutes, he hit a couple from out in no man's land, they were basically desperation shots but they went in."

The treys made the score a little closer but the key was Escalon's success at the free throw line.

"We had good, balanced scoring from people and we were 10-for-10 for free throws in the fourth quarter, we didn't miss a free throw in that quarter," Backovich noted. "Marc (Backovich) was 6-for-6 in that quarter."

Three Cougars were in double figures, paced by 18 from Steve Gentry, 14 from Backovich and 12 from Andrew Beam.

"Again, we're getting good efforts from seven people," Backovich said of the scoring, with contributions from seven different players. "Hilmar played real well but a road win in the TVL is still a win and it was a good win for us."

The win lifted Escalon to a 6-1 mark in league play and they extended that mark to 7-1 with a huge win Friday night against Livingston. The evening featured a Cougar sweep for Homecoming, with all three teams topping the Wolves.

For the varsity, it was a run-and-gun, high-scoring affair that saw the host Cougars prevail by an 80-77 decision. The game was a battle, back and forth, the lead changing several times and the crowd roaring with every shot.

"They play their best against us," Backovich said. "How that team is 1-7, I'll never know."

It marked the second time within a week the teams had met in TVL play, Escalon winning Saturday, Jan. 22 at Livingston and then battling for the win on the home court on Friday, Jan. 28.

"They hit 10 three's and they shot really well," said Backovich. "They hit 19 two's, that's a ton."

Escalon had trouble at the free throw line Friday night, hitting just 17-of-34 shots for a 50 percent mark. Had they made more free throws, the game would not have been as much of a nailbiter.

But through it all, said Backovich, the crowd was there to support the Cougars.

"I was very appreciative because, number one, our fans were fantastic, they were standing most of the game, if those fans aren't there, our kids don't play with that energy," Backovich explained.

The coach also praised administrators for quickly nipping in the bud some disruptive behavior on the part of the Livingston fans, keeping the game one of good sportsmanship on and off the court.

"The boos were very short-lived because of our administration," noted the coach. "That has no place in sports, you have to respect the other team and if you can't say something nice, just keep your mouth shut."

Escalon took a 20-18 lead after one, Livingston fought back and held a 37-35 edge at the half. The Wolves adjusted well to the Cougar defensive scheme and utilized their post players to dump in the easy baskets as much as they worked to send some off from 3-point range.

"We did a very good job on their top player, he hit a three late in the game but he only had seven points, Marc did a nice job on him," said Backovich.

That allowed the post players to get more involved, but Backovich said it was still an uptempo game, built around Livingston's fondness for the three.

"They force you to play at that tempo," Backovich said of the fast pace. "But our style is go, run and play so that's what we did."

Six Cougars were in double figures, led by Gentry with 19, who turned in a stellar effort while battling illness.

"Anthony Suniga and Andrew Beam gave us some great minutes, Brian Beeman was back to being Brian," said Backovich. "We played with fire and spark."

The coach also credited assistant Greg Largent with contributing to the win and said the presence of player Scott Sand on the bench - though not suited up to play - was huge.

"Scott Sand had his wisdom teeth pulled Friday at noon," explained Backovich. "All he wanted to do was go home to bed but he still had enough class, there was enough in him, he came to this game after having four wisdom teeth pulled, that's how much he cares for this team."

The game itself was a seesaw affair, back and forth until the final second. Grant Goedhart was at the free throw line for a pair with the Cougars leading 79-77 with four seconds to play. He made the first to give the host team a 3-point lead, 80-77. The second shot fell short and Livingston grabbed the rebound with enough time to send off one final shot from 3-point range. It fell short as the buzzer sounded, sealing the Homecoming win for the Cougars.

"It feels good, we needed to get this," said Goedhart. "They played us tough this time but the crowd was big for us, especially in the second half."

Teammate Beeman, who dished off several assists in addition to putting in 12 points, said the host squad didn't get down when the left at halftime trailing in the contest.

"It was quite a first half and we knew there was a lot of game left," Beeman said. "The crowd was awesome and we needed to win this game."

The coach sat, exhausted, as happy players and fans mingled about on the court after the final buzzer sounded about 10 p.m. Friday.

"We're finding a way to get it done," he said. "Livingston played us hard, they shot the ball well...we gave people their money's worth and this was a good team effort."

The Cougars were slated to play at Patterson on Tuesday, after The Times went to press, and will be in Riverbank on Friday, Feb. 4 as the Bruins host their Homecoming.

"Get there way early, there's hardly any seating there and that's going to be a rock 'n roll game," advised Backovich. "This is another tough week in the TVL for us, but let's keep getting 'er done."