LATHROP – Nathan McGrath waited near the locker room, clapping and serenading his players as they bounced down the hallway.
“Season’s not over yet,” Lathrop’s first-year head coach chanted.
It took 36 exhausting minutes to settle Tuesday’s Valley Oak League finale with defending champion Sierra, but that was of little consequence to the upstart Spartans.
They continued to dance and sing and party well after the final horn – tired legs and all.
Like their coach said, their topsy-turvy season’s not over yet.
Nilo Yuson scored a game-high 24 points and forward Eric Spencer jolted the Timberwolves with an unlikely spree of 3-pointers as Lathrop earned its second postseason berth in five seasons with a 66-62 overtime win.
Nicholaus Obazuaye had 10 points and seven rebounds for Lathrop, which clinched the VOL’s third and final playoff berth in most thrilling fashion.
The game featured 10 lead changes and five ties, and just when it looked like Lathrop might celebrate a regulation victory, Sierra’s Hunter Johnson sent the game into overtime with his fifth 3-pointer.
The Timberwolves delivered the first blow in the extra stanza, but the Spartans rallied with the final six points. Isaiah Ellis put back a missed free throw attempt and then found Yuson for a fastbreak layup, and Spencer’s free throw with 1.6 seconds left cued the party.
“When this team comes to play, they can play with anybody,” McGrath said. “When they feed their strengths and they attack, they’re a tough team to beat. I’m looking forward to the playoffs right now. This school has been there only one time and what better way to go in than to beat the reigning VOL champs.
“They’re the big dogs in this conference and we earned our way tonight.”
Did they ever.
The Spartans trailed by as many as 11 points late in the third quarter, but pieced together a 17-4 run over a five-minute stretch to take a 54-52 lead with 4:39 left in the game.
Lathrop led by as many as four in the final minute, but had victory snatched away by Johnson.
With a hand in his face, the steely-eyed junior buried a 3 from the top of the arc with 10.2 seconds left.
Yuson shorthanded a runner in the lane at the other end, sending the game to a four-minute overtime period.
Johnson paced Sierra with 20 points.
“Hunter Johnson kept us in that game,” Sierra head coach Scott Thomason said. “He hit some big 3s for us. I thought we’d go and win that game in overtime. I thought we had control.”
He thought wrong.
The victory vaults the Spartans (9-5, 16-10) into the Sac-Joaquin Section Division IV playoffs, where their athleticism and experience could dictate the chase.
“We’re in the D-IV playoffs. We can do some damage in there,” McGrath said. “What better way to go into it with a big win. Who knows how the bracket is going to work out. Cross my fingers we get a home game, get this crowd out there and get excited.”
Meanwhile, Sierra was left to chew on a game it had seemingly sewn up in the third quarter.
Johnson and Devin Nunez combined for five 3-pointers during a torrid two-minute stretch that saw the Timberwolves’ lead balloon to 11, 46-35.
At that point, Sierra appeared to have its claws sunk deep into the back of the Spartans.
Jonnythan Munkholm controlled the low block, finishing with 11 points and six rebounds, and Nunez was equally as sharp from long range.
But looks can be deceiving.
Thomason credited Spencer with turning the tides for Lathrop. The senior forward who lost his starting job midway through the season connected on three third-quarter 3s to all but erase a nine-point halftime deficit.
He finished with four in the game – his first four of the season.
“We lost the game in the first three minutes of the second half. We had a nine-point lead. I told the guys we needed to jump on them in the first three minutes,” Thomason said. “(Instead) we come out, turn the ball over, they get right back in the game and start building confidence.”
The Timberwolves (12-2, 20-6) will likely be a top seed in the Division III playoffs when brackets are announced today, but they’ve limped to the finish line.
Sierra has lost two of its last three games.
“We’ve been through a long season and proven we’re the best team in this league,” Thomason said. “We just got to get back to being hungry. We have a week to clean up a couple of things we need to clean up.”
Sierra 54, Lathrop 47
Jess Spivey had 17 points and Tanner Peterson finished with 13 for Sierra, which weathered an 11-0 third quarter spurt by the Spartans.
Lathrop received 10 apiece from Parminder Singh and Damani Ambrose.
Sierra 42, Lathrop 41
Lathrop had a chance to steal a season-ending win over Sierra, but its free-throw line jumper at the buzzer was well off the mark.
Victor Elijah had 14 points and Jamille Grady 11, including three 3-pointers, to pace the Timberwolves (16-4), who closed the season 11-3 in the VOL.
Ariz Bringas and Roman Martinez each had 12 for the Spartans (3-11, 7-14).