STOCKTON — The fall from grace has been sudden and swift for the Lathrop boys basketball team, but coach Nate McGrath can see the potential in all the losses.
The Spartans fell to 0-6 on the young season, but pushed unbeaten Bear Creek to the brink in a 66-56 loss on Monday evening.
The Bruins have been one of the area’s better stories in the early going. Bear Creek is now 9-0 with a signature win over reigning Valley Oak League champion Sierra during its title run at the McDonald’s Classic over the weekend.
On Monday, the winless Spartans fell behind by 12 in the first quarter but made it a one-possession game late with a furious fourth-quarter comeback.
Isaiah Ellis, Avraj Bal and Nathan Ogunbanwo combined to score all 21 of Lathrop’s points in the final eight minutes as the Spartans pulled to within 3 with about two minutes left.
Ellis scored a team-high 18 points, including seven in the fourth. He also had seven assists and six rebounds.
“He creates mismatches for us,” McGrath said of his senior standout, one of the few returning players from a team that reached the Sac-Joaquin Section Division IV playoffs and nearly upset No. 3 seed Riverbank in Riverbank.
Bal finished with a double-double, registering 14 points and 11 rebounds.
The 6-foot-4 Ogunbanwo had 14 points and seven rebounds for the cagey Spartans, who had held a lead in the fourth quarter of every game until Monday’s tilt.
Still, McGrath was encouraged by what he saw from a junior-laden club. The wins will come, he said, possibly as soon as tonight when Lathrop makes its home debut against Sonora.
“They battled back. They could have easily folded their tents. They’re getting better, slowly but surely. I like the fight. I like the grit, but we’re junior heavy,” he added. “We’re a team in transition. Guys are trying to define their roles and learning to play with one another. Tonight, we were much more fluid. We shared the ball.”
Ultimately, Lathrop’s chance at a surprising road win was foiled by a usual suspect — the first quarter malaise.
With its superior athleticism, Bear Creek pressed the slow-to-start Spartans off the opening tip and quickly built a 19-7 lead.
Lathrop outscored the Bruins 49-47 over the final three periods as McGrath found a rotation to combat the Bruins’ speed and pressure.
“We’re going to sneak up on some people. A lot of teams will only look at the record,” McGrath said. “Even though we lost by (10) points and it’s one of our biggest losses of the season, we feel confident coming out of this.
“Bear Creek is a solid team. Give them credit. We handle their pressure and made a nice run, but it was a few minor things. It’s growing pains.”
Bear Creek’s Andre Green led all scorers with 19 points. The senior came into the game averaging 21.9 points. Brandon Moss and John Berna had 13 apiece.
Lathrop split the lower-level contests. The sophomore team won 59-42, while the freshmen were bounced 62-35.