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Shorthanded Spartans

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Lathrop senior Robert Heggie hangs his head dejected after the final buzzer sounded and ended the Spartans’ playoff run during Friday’s Sac-Joaquin Section Division IV quarterfinal loss against Riv...

HIME ROMERO/The Bulletin/

POSTED March 1, 2014 1:17 a.m.

RIVERBANK – The Lathrop boys basketball team began the night a man down.

And it would only get worse from there.

With one of their top defenders on the bench in a walking boot, the shorthanded Spartans learned a painful lesson in depth on Friday evening.

T.J. Conley and Nicholaus Obazuaye fouled out during pivotal junctures in the fourth quarter, leaving Lathrop without the horses to close a double-digit deficit in a 62-56 loss to No. 3 Riverbank in the quarterfinal round of the Sac-Joaquin Section Division IV playoffs.

Not that the upstart Spartans (18-11) didn’t try. Obazuaye scored 12 of his team-high 19 points in the fourth quarter as the sixth-seeded Spartans made one last run at the Trans-Valley League’s top public school.

“I couldn’t be more proud of how they finished that game. This is a tough place to play … against a very talented team, too,” Lathrop coach Nathan McGrath said. “We gave it everything we had – and we were shorthanded tonight. Losing Isaiah (Ellis) hurt us bad tonight, especially when we started to get into foul trouble.”

Ellis re-injured his right ankle during Wednesday’s victory over Mariposa.

Lathrop could have used him in the end.

After building an 11-point lead of its own in the first half, the Spartans found themselves down 50-39 with 6:15 left in the game. To make matters worse, Conley, the Spartans’ anchor on the low block, would pick up his fifth foul seconds later.

The 6-foot-3 senior fouled out with eight points, all of which came in a first half dominated by the Spartans.

Lathrop wouldn’t go quietly. Obazuaye attacked from all angles down the stretch, twisting into the lane or rising up for long jumpshots. He connected on two 3s in the fourth quarter, including an off-balance shot from the top of the arc that made it 59-56 with 22 seconds left.

Like Conley, though, he’d watch the final stages from the bench. He ripped at his jersey after being whistled for his fifth foul with 15.7 seconds left and had to be consoled by McGrath.

With Lathrop battling foul trouble and a  short bench, Riverbank went on the offensive in the third quarter.

Reilly Nabors and Chris Porter III alternated scoring plays during an 18-6 run.

Nabors sandwiched two 3s around a transition layup, and Porter attacked the post. He buried two free throws and knifed through the lane for two of his 15 points.

“We knew with them losing one kid (Ellis), they were down bodies,” Riverbank coach Jeff Jennings said. “Our goal was to get out there and wear them down. They didn’t have a whole lot of legs and we wanted to make them pay for it.”

Anemic from the floor in the first 16 minutes, the Bruins couldn’t miss in the third en route to a 41-39 lead.

It helped that Lathrop’s interior was softened by foul trouble. Conley started the second half on the bench and picked up his fourth foul with 1:14 left in the frame, disrupting Lathrop’s flow at both ends.

The Spartans surrendered seven field goals in the third, one fewer than it allowed in the entire first half, and committed five turnovers.

“When we lost T.J., he’s a big presence in there. His length, his tenacity and his strength … that hurt us,” McGrath said. “Teams can’t drive inside with free will when he’s in there. Without him, and again, without Ellis, you have to go deeper on your bench and we were exploited.”

Momentum would follow Riverbank into the fourth, where it scored the first 11.

Dunham accounted for seven of the points. He pulled in a long rebound and initiated a one-man fast break, finishing at the rim for a 50-39 cushion.

The fourth-year senior finished with 20 points, 10 rebounds, three blocked shots and three assists, despite a noticeable ankle injury.

Nabors had 18 points on four 3s. Porter also had a double-double, collecting 10 rebounds to go with 15 points.

The Bruins will face No. 2 Natomas on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, Lathrop’s spirited run is over. The fifth-year varsity program enjoyed a banner season under its first-year coach.

Lathrop collected thrilling, down-to-the-wire wins over Manteca and Sierra, and then routed Mariposa earlier in the week for the program’s first playoff win.

On Friday, across hostile enemy lines, the Spartans flirted with their first-ever trip to the semifinal round.

Eric Spencer continued his late-season revival with 12 points and 10 rebounds. Point guard Nilo Yuson had 10 points and six assists for Lathrop, which returns only one starter next season.

On Friday, he watched from the bench, his tender ankle supported in a walking boot.

“They showed a lot of character being able to come back in some pretty difficult conditions,” McGrath said. “We just came up short.”

And shorthanded, too.

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