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No. 4 TWolves still winless in NorCal after loss to 13 seed
Sierras Guillermo Nunez draws the foul from Shastas Austin Ajamian during the first half of Wednesdays 66-56 loss in the first round of the CIF Northern California playoffs. - photo by HIME ROMERO

Tagged with the 13th and final seed of the CIF Northern California Regional Championships, Shasta of Redding travelled to Manteca Wednesday to meet No. 4 Sierra as the decided underdog.

The Wolves shouldn’t be overlooked any longer after pulling off a 66-56 opening-round stunner in Division III.

Shasta, sporting a modest 16-12 record, absorbed a 20-point loss to Placer in its second game of the season — the same Placer squad Sierra (26-6) beat by the same margin in the second round of the Sac-Joaquin Section playoffs.

None of that mattered Wednesday.

“We’ve been playing much better ball at the end of the year, so our record is a little misleading I think,” Shasta coach Bill Callaway said. “We have some talent, but we haven’t put it all together. Tonight was an indication of us putting it all together.”

Whether it was the hockey-style substituting in the first half or the effective 1-3-1 zone in the second half, “together” was how the Wolves nipped the Timberwolves.

Wade Gulden led a balanced Shasta effort with 13 points and five assists, while Brandon Eboigbodin and Austin Ajamian each fired 12. Shasta hit four of its six 3-pointers in the first quarter, but the points kept coming — be it in transition or half-court sets — because of the team’s passing ability. The Wolves recorded 16 assists versus nine for Sierra.

“They moved the ball quick and we weren’t shuffling over fast enough on defense,” said Sierra guard Guillermo Nunez. “That led to easy layups for them.”

Sierra was still in the game with a minute to go after Emmanuel Elijah (6 points, 7 rebounds, 5 steals) came up with a big steal near midcourt and took it the other way for a layup that closed the Timberwolves in, 60-56. Shasta iced it with six straight free throws, four coming from Gulden.

After mustering just seven points in the third quarter, Sierra never led in the fourth when four-point deficits seemed like 14 as it struggled to cash in on fastbreak opportunities, free throws and open 3s.

“We had a lot of opportunities to get back in the game,” Sierra coach Scott Thomason said. “We missed a couple of free throws, got some steals but missed a couple of runners right after that. We had some good shots for Guillermo, but he missed some shots when we needed them.”

Nunez, however, paced Sierra with 20 points while nailing four 3s. Several of his misses were in-and-outs, but he was a non-factor down the stretch as Shasta’s bothersome zone defense took control. His final field goal, a jumper from the left wing, came with 6:36 remaining.

“In the first half they were beating us off penetration quite a bit and kicking it out for 3s, so we went to a 1-3-1 zone and kept them on the perimeter,” Callaway said. “We paid for it on offensive rebounds, but for the most part it benefitted us.”

Sierra owned the boards by a 37-22 count and grabbed 19 off the offensive glass but couldn’t take advantage. Turnovers, rarely a problem for Sierra, didn’t help, as it committed 11 of its 17 in the first half.

Eric Melgar scored 10 points for Sierra, and Justin Patton contributed nine and eight rebounds.

“Maybe fatigue affected us a little bit, I’m not sure,” Thomason said. “I thought we’d have better purpose than we had. I thought we’d execute better than we did.”

It’s another heart-wrenching end for Sierra’s seniors. They finish with back-to-back losses for a second straight year, falling in the SJS finale and again at home in the NorCal opener. The Timberwolves are now 0-3 all-time in the NorCal tournament.

“We’ll move forward and it’s back to step one starting about a month from now,” Thomason said.