Sierra High advanced to the Sac-Joaquin Section Division III semifinals after surviving a tough, grind-it-out win over Los Banos on Friday.
It took Emmanuel Elijah’s baseline jumper in the closing seconds to seal the 49-44 victory for the No. 2 seeded Timberwolves (26-2).
“I was ecstatic when the ball went in,” Elijah said. “It was a tough game all the way through.”
The 5-foot-9 junior also had a tall order in guarding the Tigers’ standout Joey Bennett, who enjoyed a game-high 23 points with 11 rebounds.
“Joey’s the best player in the section,” said Los Banos coach Mike Bonillas, who was thrilled to see his No. 7 team get this far.
“No one expected us to be here,” he added.
Meanwhile, Elijah, according to Timberwolves’ coach Scott Thomason, is his team’s best defensive player. He kept Bennett in check late in third quarter until midway through the fourth, departing momentarily to the locker room after losing a contact lens.
“I couldn’t wait to get back in the game,” said Elijah, who tallied 10 points, seven rebounds and two steals.
Sierra relied on a balanced offensive attack, with Will Ward leading the way with 12 points and Guillermo Nunez chipping in with 11.
The Timberwolves were sluggish offensively at the outset, coming away empty handed in their first few possessions before Elijah delivered at the 4:50 mark.
Los Banos (19-8) controlled the early tempo. Bennett and Garrett Guilford both connected 3s and 6-4 senior center Kyle Quint powered his way for a pair of baskets.
Bennett and Joel Marshall kept the Tigers on top as both connected on a pair of second-quarter buckets.
Down 22-18, Sierra rallied with seven unanswered points shortly before the intermission, with Nunez sinking a pair of free throws and following that up with a steal at midcourt and nailing the quick 3.
The Timberwolves led 25-22 at the half despite their cold outside shooting.
They thawed out in the third. Nunez, who also had seven assists, along with Joseph Berry and Tim Thornton found their range from behind the arc. Sierra built up a 36-29 advantage after Berry buried his second 3 in the period.
Los Banos answered back with free throws by Bennett, who also assisted Javier Garcia’s trey to close out the third.
Gary Dunne’s free throw early in the fourth cut the Timberwolves’ lead, 39-37.
Ward and Elijah kept Sierra on top, but Los Banos kept it close on a basket and two free throws by Bennett.
“We had our chances,” Bonillas said. “But we let the game slip away.”
The Tigers blew two open court layups and got called for an offensive foul.
Sierra, leading 47-42, was cited for a 10-second backcourt infraction late in the game. Bennett’s two free throws cut it to three.
But Elijah returned to action after a brief stop to the locker room in time to nail the jumper. “That shot was huge,” he said.
Thomason credited his defense for the win.
“Our man-to-man defense is what got us here,” he said. “I didn’t want to get away from that.”
Overall, Thomason was pleased with his team’s performance. “It was a great overall effort,” he added.
Sierra will take on No. 3 Center Tuesday at Cosumnes River College. Tip-off is 7:30 p.m.