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Men’s hoop advances to the next round with another gritty performance

MARYSVILLE — Las Positas head men’s basketball coach James Giacomazzi nervously bit his fingernails as Hawks’ sophomore forward Brandon Fisher stepped to the free throw line. The Hawks led 79-76. One more point, and the game would’ve been over.

Fisher missed. The drama of this riveting night wasn’t over.

Devon Malcolm, the Yuba College guard who led all scorers with 21 points, dribbled hurriedly up the court in transition as the final seconds ticked away, desperate for the game-tying 3-pointer  to force overtime. But Fisher’s leaping defense made Malcolm pump-fake. Then, freshman forward Nay’Veon Reed helped the play as well, forcing Malcolm into a difficult shot. It banged off the backboard, not even close. 

The buzzer sounded. Giacomazzi went from anxious to exhilarated instantly. He hugged assistant coach Anthony Haskett. The upset of the Yuba 49ers, the No. 4 seed in the NorCal Regional playoffs, was complete. The team in black played the role of victorious villains who won’t go away.

It didn’t matter how many guys were playing hurt.

It didn’t matter they had to travel 129 miles to play the No. 9 ranked team in the state.

It didn’t matter their backup center got ejected five minutes into the game.

It didn’t matter they had an 11-point lead with 4:33 left in the game and lost all of it.

The Hawks found a way to get it done, the same way they have all season. This was the latest display of resilience by the Hawks. They went to Yuba College as big underdogs and snapped the 49ers’ 20-game winning streak. In a season full of adversity, they’ve made a habit out of hanging on and pulling through. Somehow, they always seem to dig deeper.

Las Positas will now face No. 5 West Valley College in Saratoga on Saturday, March 4 in the NorCal Regional Final. The Hawks lost a heartbreaker to West Valley back on Dec. 7, a 94-89 overtime defeat in Livermore. At stake is a second-consecutive trip to the state championships.

“It’s our revenge tour,” Hawks’ sophomore guard Isaiah Victor said.

More on the Hawks: Isaiah Victor has become the go-to star he was sure he could be

The Hawks needed everybody to pull this off, and it was their balanced attack that worked. Their usual dominant center, sophomore forward Jordahn Johnson, managed just six points. But the Hawks’ perimeter players filled the void on offense. 

Victor led the way with 18 points, including five straight points late to give Las Positas its largest lead. But he wasn’t alone. Freshman guard Henry Palmer scored 14 points, including four 3s that all seemed to connect at pivotal moments. Sophomore point guard Jaden Patterson scored 10 of his 12 points in the second half. Sophomore guard Evan Johnson added 10 points, giving him back-to-back games scoring double digits for the first time this season.

The four guards combined for 29 of the Hawks’ 45 points in the second half.

“I’ve never been so happy for a team and so mad at a team at the same time in 24 years of coaching,” Giacomazzi said. “We just kind of stayed the course and kept fighting. I’m really proud of the effort, we worked our tails off.”

The momentum shifted Yuba’s way early in the first half when the already-depleted Hawks lost another rotation player.

At the 7:53 mark of the first half, Hawks’ freshman center Jajuan Mitchell-Cox got into a scuffle with 49ers’ sophomore guard Illyas Rafiq as they wrestled for possession of the ball. With the Hawks down just 21-20 at the time, the officiating crew ruled Mitchell-Cox committed a Flagrant 2 foul when he made contact to the face. They said it was an automatic ejection. The Hawks were down to nine total players, including two who don’t usually play often. So Giacomazzi had a seven-player rotation for the rest of the game.

Yuba responded with an 8-0 run to take their biggest of the first half, 29-20. 

The Hawks, however, simply would not go away. Getting some timely baskets from Johnson, including two 3-pointers, the Hawks stayed within striking distance of the 49ers. Las Positas trailed 37-34 at halftime. 

The 49ers came out of the break with a 6-0 run. The Hawks went the first three minutes of the second half without a point and found themselves down 50-42 with just under 15 minutes left in the game. 

To make matters worse, Johnson, the first-team all-conference big man, picked up his fourth foul with just over 12 minutes left in the second half. That forced Giacomazzi to bench him and play Nay’Veon Reed, who averaged just 2.8 points over his last five games. 

But when it looked as if their season was coming to an end, that’s when the Hawks came alive.

The 3-pointers started falling and the defense picked up. The home crowd was getting antsy. In a moment of adversity, the Hawks looked calm. Guys were still clapping after every achieved bucket. They even flashed some smiles after a few defensive stops. There were no heads hanging, no drop off in energy. 

The swag was still there.

Evan Johnson celebrates after the Hawks’ 79-76 win over Yuba College on Feb. 25, 2022. (Photo by C.J. Flores/The Express)

Reed came up big for his team. He neutralized the 49ers’ paint attack and hit one of the biggest shots of the game when he drained a corner 3 with 12:54 left in the second half. It not only cut the Hawks’ deficit to 54-50, but it was also one of several moments Las Positas declared it would not be broken. Not on this night.

“We don’t let certain things bother us,” Giacomazzi said. “We got to keep moving. We have a team. We are a team. Next man up.”

Over about a seven-minute stretch, Las Positas swung the momentum with a 22-9 run. The Hawks made four 3s in that span and took a 64-59 lead with 7:24 remaining. 

They weren’t done.

After Yuba freshman wing Cam Niles scored with 6:46 left in the game, cutting the host’s deficit to 64-61, Las Positas shut down the 49ers’ offense over the next three minutes and 26 seconds. In that span, the Hawks got a 3-pointer from Palmer, another one from Victor. Then a steal and score by Victor put the Hawks ahead 72-61 with 4:33 left in the game.

But the Hawks would have to finish the stretch run without their best player and their last-remaining big man. Johnson fouled out with just over four minutes remaining. This forced Giacomazzi to go small for the rest of the game. The Hawks closed with Fisher, a 6-foot-7 sophomore, assuming the role of holding down the paint and rebounding.

“Taking over for Jordan is not an easy role,” Fisher said. “But I am one of the leaders on this team, so whoever steps down on this team, I wanted to pick them up and step in that role.”

Fisher played the final four-plus minutes on the court alongside Patterson, Victor, Palmer and Evan Johnson. Four guards, one forward.

If the Hawks were going to do it, if they were going to survive and advance, this had to be the crew to pull it off. The heat was about to turn up as the 49ers got desperate to avoid the upset.

In addition to Yuba, the Hawks would have to overcome their own demons of turnovers and poor shot selection. They started to creep in late on Saturday.

With just under two minutes remaining and the Hawks ahead 74-67, Palmer was stripped at halfcourt by Yuba center Konner Baroni. Palmer then grabbed Baroni by the jersey as he was about to take off for a transition layup. That intentional foul gave Yuba two free throws and the possession of the ball. 

Baroni made just one but the 49ers got the offensive rebound and eventually guard Caden Flowers hit a huge corner 3 with 1:37. It was a four-point possession for Yuba and it left the Hawks clinging to a 74-71 lead.

On the Hawks’ ensuing offensive possession, Patterson had his pass intercepted and Flowers would find his spot on the left wing, drilling a 24-footer to tie the game at 74 with 1:22 left. It was a 49ers frenzy. It felt like the roof of the gym was going to collapse.

The Hawks were on the verge of heartbreak. If they’d come to Yuba and gotten blown out, that would’ve been expected. After all that’s gone on this season, losing to this opponent on the road, wouldn’t have been an indictment. But to be so close to the upset, and lose this way, it would’ve been the kind of loss that stayed with them for years.

But this season has prepared them for this. They’ve had hurdles crop up all year. Each time, they’ve had to power through.

They started the season down three key players who got late scholarships which, while a great thing for the program, left them short on depth. They suffered two tough losses — back-to-back home defeats to West Valley and Diablo Valley, who they beat in the first round — that had them licking their wounds.

What followed was a challenging conference schedule, headed by state power City College of San Francisco but also featuring a formidable Chabot College squad. Both teams are still alive for the state tournament, meaning Coast Conference North could have three of the final eight teams.

Right when Las Positas was getting a rhythm, a fight involving players and spectators in a home game against Foothill nearly derailed their season. They played their final four home games with no spectators, a ruling handed down by the Coast Conference North. Their rematch at Foothill was also in an empty gym. Las Positas went 2-3 in their five games without fans.

Perhaps most importantly, they lost Jaden Phillips, a pivotal sophomore guard. Phillips averaged 13.8 points, 5.5 rebounds and 2.9 assists in the 20 regular season games he played, 15 of which he started. Without him, players like Victor and Patterson are logging heavy minutes. They were visibly tired and trailing by 10 in the second half of the first-round matchup against Diablo Valley. They summoned the energy for a late rally to pull out the win. Patterson epitomized their resolve suffering a calf cramp late before returning in the final minute.

Here they were again, with 1:22 remaining, their big lead gone, their season on the brink and one of the best teams in the state holding all the momentum. For the Hawks, this was familiar territory.

“Just to see my dogs fight like that,” Victor said. “We had our back. We had each other’s back till the very end.”

Las Positas sophomore point guard Jaden Patterson, with the ball, scored 10 points in the second half, including this free throw with 18.2 seconds remaining. He provided the final points in the Hawks’ stunning playoff win on the road. (Photo by C.J. Flores/The Express)

Patterson, rushed a bit by the pressure, got the ball past half-court. With the crowd chanting “Defense1” as loud as it could, Patterson raised his hand to signal, “I got this.” 

Out of nowhere, Patterson pulled the trigger from 30 feet with 13 seconds on the shot clock. Ill-advised? Perhaps. But it set up the biggest play of the game from the unsung hero.

As the ball clanked off the back iron, Fisher grabbed the rebounded and went back up, making the basket and drawing the foul. After he sank the free throw, the Hawks led 77-74 with 57.2 seconds left.

“Brandon Fisher came on so clutch for us today,” said Jordahn Johnson. “Me and him were always battling in practice and I always knew he had it in him. He just needed the opportunity to show it, and tonight was that time.”

A pair of free throws by Patterson with 18.2 seconds left seemed to seal the deal for the visitors. But Flowers was fouled on his next 3-point attempt, giving him three free throws with 12.3 seconds remaining. He made the first two and missed the second.

Fisher had a chance to put a dagger in the 49ers after he was intentionally fouled. But Fisher missed it, keeping Yuba’s hopes alive. On the ensuing rebound, Malcolm pushed the ball up the court in search of a game-tying 3-pointer. But he missed.

The clock expired. Black jerseys jumped and ran around the court. The Hawks survived and advanced. Again.

Now, the Cinderella story of the playoffs gets a week between games. They desperately need it. The emphasis will be on rest and injury prevention.

“I think we’re pretty banged up,” Giacomazzi said. “I think we fought through it. “I’m proud of the guys for that, but we’ve got to heal up a little bit. I think we’ll take a couple of days, ice down, (get) treatment — do all that and keep it light. Then we’ll get back going on Tuesday, for sure.”

Nathan Canilao is a freelance writer for the Express. He was the former sports editor and editor-in-chief. Follow him @NathanCanilao. || Top photo by C.J. Flores/The Express

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