Eleven years to the day, head coach Scott Thomason and Sierra High’s boys basketball team will return to Power Balance Pavilion Friday to play top-seeded Foothill of Sacramento for the Sac-Joaquin Section Division-III championship
It was 11 years ago when the Timberwolves made their first appearance in a section title game at what was then called, and still referred as by many, Arco Arena.
Memories of the final minutes and seconds still haunt Thomason.
Sierra nearly led wire-to-wire but was victimized by a desperation 3-pointer at the buzzer by 6-foot-8 Riverbank center Aaron Gentry.
Riverbank 48, Sierra 47.
Sierra held a nine-point lead at halftime and was up eight with about two minutes remaining. The Timberwolves had a chance to ice it at the free-throw line with seven minutes to go, but both were missed.
Riverbank grabbed the rebound, and with no timeouts left rushed the ball upcourt to Gentry, who set up well behind 3-point range before the last-second heave.
“He was too wide open for that shot in a title game,” was Thomason’s quote in the Bulletin’s March 3, 2001 edition.
Thomason was more jovial after his second-seeded Timberwolves downed third-seeded Center 67-50 in the semifinal round Tuesday at Cosumnes River College.
“I have to exorcize some demons a little bit,” he said. “I still break out in cold sweats some nights 11 years later. I’ve gotta do a better job of coaching in the last five seconds.”
That was then.
This is now.
“It’s a whole different team,” Thomason said. “The only other person around was (assistant coach Leo) Griggs that year. We have a whole different identity.”
On Friday, Sierra (27-2) will put its 26-game winning streak on the line against Foothill (27-3), which has claimed 22 in a row and owns three SJS Division III titles (1997, 2002, 2003). Foothill drubbed fourth-seeded Lindhurst 59-39 in the other semifinal Tuesday after falling behind 26-21 by halftime.
Sierra is an underdog in this fight, though Thomason and the Timberwolves would have it no other way.
The Mustangs are ranked sixth among Division III schools in the state by CalHiSports/ESPN Rise, and seventh — 38th overall — by MaxPreps.com. Sierra, by comparison, is 20th in Division III and 104th overall in the MaxPreps rankings.
They are led by UC Santa Barbara-bound Michael Bryson, a 6-foot-4 guard who averages 19.3 points per game and is the squad’s best 3-point shooter. Guards Kelly Bender and Anthony Williams check in at 13 and 12.8 points, respectively.
On paper, Sierra appears to have advantages in depth and size, and it needed both to overcome the athletic Cougars of Center on Tuesday. Sixth man Tim Thornton led all players with 24 points and was 6 of 8 on 3-pointers, while 6-5 center Will Ward bruised his way to 19 points, 11 rebounds and four blocks.
But there have been others all season who have taken their turns in the limelight, from point guard Guillermo Nunez, to sharpshooting Joseph Berry, to defensive sparkplug Emmanuel Elijah and wiry big forwards Justin Patton and D’Ari Allen.
“We have players that don’t play very much that would be playing more any other year, but that’s what this team is all about,” Thomason said. “They accept their roles; they trust me and their coaching staff.”
And of Ward, Thomason said, “We feel that we have the best inside player around.”
Thomason added that his team is going into the section finale with confidence but with the mindset that the best has yet to come.
“We’re playing some great basketball this year, but we still have not played our best basketball yet,” he said. “That’s what we’re going to try and do on Friday night.”