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Gap atop VOL closer than it appears

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POSTED February 1, 2014 12:46 a.m.

Don’t let the records fool you.

The Sierra High boys basketball team may very well run away with the Valley Oak League title this season, stringing together blowouts as they have done throughout the first nine games.

But it won’t feel so one-sided the next time Scott Thomason’s boys see Weston Ranch.

Three games separate the two in the standings after Friday evening’s down-to-the-wire 61-59 victory, a decision celebrated by the still-unbeaten Timberwolves. But in all honesty, the gap between the two programs is much closer than that.

By all accounts, super sophomore Jaelen Ragsdale should have sent the affair into overtime. Even Thomason was stunned. On an evening dominated by collisions and hard fouls around the bucket, Ragsdale was given a free pass to the rim in the final seconds.

No contact.

No resistance.

Just a clear path.

Ragsdale slipped a screen and flipped his shot toward the rim with his right hand as a raucous capacity crowd gasped and held their collective breath. The kid with the deft touch and tear-drop floater hadn’t missed much in the second half.

A scintillating four-quarter performance had led to this …

His MVP moment.

Ragsdale announced his candidacy by shaking the king’s throne for 32 minutes. He was limited to just four points in the first half, but found other ways to impact the game. He had four assists, many of them drive-and-kick passes to Jazz Swanson, who was automatic from the right side of the 3-point arc. He also played Sierra’s guards end line to end line, turning up the pressure as the Cougars snuck into the break with a 28-27 lead.

But one shot defined the game – and likely set the tone for the next three seasons of this ever-intense, always fun rivalry. Ragsdale’s last field goal attempt kissed off the backboard and lipped off the front of the rim as the final seconds ticked off.

He grabbed at his jersey, pulling it over his eyes as he sauntered off to the locker room. If those were tears in his eyes, no one was judging.

“I can’t believe Ragsdale missed that layup. He had made every shot the whole game. The kid played unbelievable all game and the ball just rolled out,” Thomason said. “Sometimes, you catch some breaks every once in awhile.”

The 5-foot-8 guard with the give-me-the-ball confidence has all the tools to be the next ace in Weston Ranch’s short but illustrious history. He can pass it, shoot it, defend it and dribble it. More importantly, he can lead.

Ragsdale gave the Cougars the lead five times on Friday evening and scored all but two of their third quarter points.

All that’s left now for the rising star is what Sierra proved it has in abundance – the ability to finish BIG games. The Timberwolves trailed by seven points with less than 3 minutes left, but kept its focus and composure.

Sierra closed with a 9-3 run and connected on its last 12 free-throw attempts, including two by center Joshua Patton with 9.9 seconds left to steal its 11th straight win.

Resolve.

Focus.

Poise.

By comparison, the Cougars tightened up down the stretch, committing five turnovers in the fourth. The final turnover proved to be the death nail. Senior guard Alex Delinila was whistled for a controversial charge with 40 seconds left that would have given him a chance at a three-point play and the Cougars’ a 62-59 lead.

Instead, Sierra took control of the ball – and the game – setting up a lob pass for Patton, who was fouled under the bucket.

“We showed some resiliency. This is something we can remember in the future. ‘Hey guys we’ve done it before. We can comeback.’ This was almost the best thing for us,” Thomason said. “We’ve been blowing people out.

“For us to be in a close game where we have to perform in pressure situations, I’m proud of our guys.”

It was also a teaching moment for Ragsdale and the fast-rising Cougars.

If the Cougars connect on their free throws (9 of 16) and take care of the ball there’s a chance Ragsdale doesn’t have to play hero in the final seconds. Then again, using the long-lens view, this collapse might be part of the maturation process.

For the star and his team.

Here’s what we know: Though they left Sierra feeling robbed and sickened by a two-point loss – its first in six games – Weston Ranch proved the gap at the top is closer than it appears.

Their next contest (Feb. 14) might not be for the VOL championship, but I’ll bet you a snack bar soda it will feel like it.

Stay tuned.

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