At the midway point in the season, things weren’t unfolding as planned for the Lathrop boys basketball team and senior forward Eric Spencer.
The Spartans, who opened Valley Oak League play with a statement win over Manteca, were on the verge of falling out of the race for the conference’s three Sac-Joaquin Section playoff seeds.
After starting league play 2-0, Lathrop dropped four of its next six games, including a disparaging loss to East Union (1-13) and a heartbreaker to Weston Ranch two nights later.
Spencer, meanwhile, had lost his starting job and watched his production of the offensive end fall off.
Those struggles seemed like distant memories on Tuesday evening, as the Spartans and Spencer celebrated a 66-62 overtime victory over Sierra in their Valley Oak League finale.
By virtue of their midseason malaise, Lathrop left itself no margin for error. The terms were simple: Only a victory over the once-beaten, three-time defending champion Timberwolves would guarantee the program’s second playoff berth.
Lathrop did just that, scoring the final six points in overtime to RSVP for the Sac-Joaquin Section Division IV tournament.
The Spartans closed the VOL season by winning five of their last six games, and will open the playoffs at home against Southern League champion Mariposa on Wednesday.
“Five weeks ago, when we dropped a tough one to Weston Ranch, that dropped us to, I believe, 4-4,” Lathrop coach Nathan McGrath said, his team seeded sixth by the committee. “With the exception of the Kimball game last week, we’ve been playing our best basketball.”
An unlikely hero rose to the occasion on Tuesday evening.
Spencer not only stepped up for Lathrop, but he stepped out too. Out to the 3-point line.
The 6-foot-5 power forward/center connected on all four of his 3-point attempts. They were his first 3s of the season.
The player known affectionately around the program as “Texas” finished with a season-high 21 points, his first double-digit scoring effort in more than a month.
“I gave him the game ball tonight. He played a fantastic game,” McGrath said. “Those were his first 3-pointers attempted all year. I don’t know where that came from.
“Texas was phenomenal tonight,” he added. “We didn’t get much from some of the guys that we’re normally getting eight to 12 points from, so other guys stepped up, seniors like Eric Spencer.”
Spencer buried his first 3-pointer during an 8-0 spurt to start the game. However, he was at his season-best at the start of the third quarter with the Spartans trailing by nine.
Spencer scored 11 of Lathrop’s first 13 points in the second half, including three 3-pointers. His last pulled Lathrop to within 32-31 and energized a capacity home crowd.
Though his team would eventually build back the lead, Sierra coach Scott Thomason said Spencer’s shooting spree in the first three minutes of the third quarter was the difference.
Lathrop’s confidence swelled with each long-range bucket, he said.
“I didn’t expect their big guy to step out and hit all those 3s,” Thomason said. “We’re playing off those guys. ‘They can’t shoot, they can’t shoot.’ But (Spencer) bangs down three or four 3s.”
Even Spencer’s teammates were surprised by his range and sudden stroke.
His production had tapered off considerably in league play and he hadn’t scored in double figures since netting 15 in an 88-69 victory over Lodi on Jan. 3.
In 12 non-league games, Spencer averaged 9 points per game with six games in double figures.
In the 12 leagues to follow, his average – along with his minutes – slipped to 5 points.
It appears he’s found his form at just the right time.
Spencer, whose free throw with 1.6 seconds left in overtime iced the win Tuesday, gives McGrath another tall body to compliment fellow senior T.J. Conley.
And as he proved on Tuesday, his ability to shoot from distance can be a matchup nightmare for opposing big men.
“He came through,” said point guard Nilo Yuson, who finished with 24 points and eight assists, five rebounds and four steals in the win. “I’ve never seen him shoot like that.”