He’s a sophomore named Junior, but in many ways he is more mature than most seniors.
Junior Ballard remained stone-faced after he was told what kind of damage he had inflicted on a powerhouse program that prides itself on defense. Lathrop High’s rising star carved up the reigning Valley Oak League and Sac-Joaquin Section Division III champion for 51 points Friday in an 80-69 upset at Sierra. It’s the third time this season that he has broken the single-game scoring record for Lathrop.
“My teammates helped me throughout,” said Ballard, who also secured a game-high 16 rebounds. “They were finding me, getting me the ball and we were running our offense. That’s how I got the 51.”
And Lathrop (3-3 VOL, 10-9 overall) got its biggest win of the season by riding the 6-foot-2, 180-pound guard in crunch time. The Spartans started the fourth quarter down 50-45 but exploded for 35 points in the period. Ballard accounted for 26 of them and knocked down all 10 of his free throws in the final 35 seconds of the game.
Deshawn Kelley also came up big in the second half, when he scored all 11 of his points. Things began to unravel for Sierra midway through the fourth quarter when Lathrop scored six unanswered points capped by two straight free throws from Parminder Singh that gave the Spartans a 68-61 lead.
Daniel Wyatt (15 points) converted a layup with 1:05 remaining to close Sierra in 70-68 before Ballard took over from the foul line.
It was a rare victory against Sierra; the Spartans are now 2-11 all-time against their Manteca Unified rival.
“They’ve been top dog for a while,” Lathrop coach Nate McGrath said of the four-time defending VOL champion Timberwolves. “Lathrop High is still kind of new and we don’t beat some of these schools very often so you have to take them when you can.”
Sierra (2-4, 11-7), which has dropped four of its last five, helped Ballard eclipse the half-century mark in the end. He was sent to the free-throw line to attempt six shots after getting fouled on a defensive rebound and Sierra was tagged for two technicals.
“Just trying to compete for my team,” Sierra coach Scott Thomason said of receiving one of those technical fouls. “There were some things we disagreed with but it’s part of the game. Give Lathrop a lot of credit. (Ballard) is pretty good. Fifty-one at our gym, and he hit tough shot after tough shot.”
Though he did hit two 3s, much of Ballard’s work was done in the key. He created driving lanes with his ability to take an entire defense off the dribble. When lanes weren’t there, Ballard drove to the middle of the key drained short-range jumpers with hands in his face.
“He was in the zone tonight,” McGrath said. “He’s a phenomenal basketball player and we’re as good as he makes everybody else. He’s one of those special players who can just do what he does and everybody else will follow.”
Ballard managed to overshadow some stellar performances on Sierra’s end. Senior forward Jess Spivey led the Timberwolves with 26 points and 11 rebounds, and reserve center Freddy Thandi had a career high 14 points.
Sierra, though, missed out on early opportunities to break the game open. Wyatt’s four-point play after a made 3 pushed Sierra’s second-quarter lead to 25-18, and the Timberwolves twice led by as much as eight in the third.
“We got up eight and we had to put them away right there but we couldn’t guard the ball tonight,” Thomason said. “We were letting guys penetrate to the basket too much and we were too slow on help. We just could not stop Ballard — he was sensational.”