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Payton interception helps seal Lathrop championship win
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TRACY – The big guy can play in the back court, too.

With Elliot Christian trailing by three points and time running out Saturday with an arsenal of 3-point shooters at the ready, Lathrop’s Adonis Payton and his 6-foot-4, 230-pound frame came out from the post and intercepted a pass, sealing the Spartans 87-84 shootout victory in the championship game of the 27th Annual Holiday Classic at West High’s Steve Thornton Gym.

“We had to get back on defense,” Payton said. “So I got on my man, stepped out and got the pass.

“It was an intense game – they started making their 3s so we had to step up.”

Lathrop (4-3) never trailed the rest of the way after all-tournament selection Dan Ballesteros (14 points, four 3-pointers) drained a 3-pointer late in the first half. The Eagles (5-3) – ranked No. 18 in Northern California by NorCalPreps – tied the game at 54 early in the second quarter and after falling behind by 10 points in the fourth period closed to within two with 32 seconds remaining in the game. 

“It was very intense,” Spartans coach Craig Ward said. “It felt good to have a game like that. Down the stretch these guys buckled down and played good defense.”

Losers of three of its last four games coming into the tournament, after a blowout win in the first game of the three-day affair the Spartans won the last two by three points apiece.

“We struggled coming into this tournament,” Ward said. We had lost our first three games, including one to Tracy who we beat Friday – and the reason why is because we weren’t finishing.

“We are playing a tenacious type of defense that allows us a lot of opportunities. We missed 24 layups in one game, 21 in the next game and 20 in the next. We are a team that can easily score 100 points in a game, but think of the points we left on the floor in those games.”

Tournament most valuable player Junior Ballard (17 points, 12 rebounds, two steals) directed the balanced Lathrop offense with ease, helping four Spartans players into double figures.

“They ran a trap zone on us,” Ballard said. “So coach said if we swing the ball we would have an open man, and that is how we got things done.” 

Payton (18 points, 10 rebounds) and teammate Antony Blasé (12 points, seven rebounds) were named to the all-tournament team and Michael Mills added 16 points.

All-tournament selection Jimmy Beltz hit seven 3-pointer for Elliott Christian and finished with a game-high 30 points, eclipsing the championship-game record of 29 points set by Weston Ranch’s James Nunnally in 2007.