Sierra accomplished almost all that it wanted to for three quarters against Junior Ballard and visiting Lathrop on Thursday.
It was at this gym a year ago when the Spartans’ budding star, then a sophomore, gashed Sierra for 26 of his school-record 51 points in the fourth quarter.
This time, an unexpected hero emerged for the Spartans in a more physical and defensive battle. With Ballard facilitating Lathrop’s attack more than carrying it, much of it because of Sierra’s stifling defense, Idowu Olaleye came through with the big plays down the stretch in a 41-35 come-from-behind victory.
Sierra (2-4 Valley Oak League, 11-7 overall) led 30-22 going into the fourth quarter and by as much as 11 at one point in the third, but the relentless and hard-nosed Olaleye helped turn the tide in the Spartans’ favor.
“The game was very intense,” the 6-foot-3 reserve forward said. “People were yelling from all angles and when coach is calling the plays you can’t really hear him because it’s so loud on the gym, but it was a fun atmosphere. I love games like this because it brings the best out in me.”
Olaleye tied Ballard (12 rebounds) for game-high honors with 13 points, scoring 11 of them in the fourth quarter. Lathrop (4-2, 12-7) took its first and only lead at 32-30 with 3:03 remaining after Olaleye stole the ball from Victor Elijah at the top of the key and took it the other way for an uncontested layup.
“I saw he wasn’t really confident with the ball in his hand, so when he tried to make that pass I knew he wasn’t going to fake it,” Olaleye said. “ I just gambled and lunged for it.”
He wasn’t done yet, following Dan Ballesteros baseline jumper with a traditional three-point play that capped the Spartans’ staggering 15-0 run. The stout Elijah, Sierra’s best low-post player, picked up his fifth foul on the play and finished with 10 points and 10 rebounds.
“When you have an eight-point lead going into the fourth quarter, that’s a game at home you have to grind out and go win,” Sierra coach Scott Thomason said. “Give Lathrop a lot of credit; they did what they had to do in the fourth quarter to go win that game. They just out-toughed us and played harder than us in the fourth quarter. They made the plays, we didn’t.”
Sierra was held without a field goal and missed five straight free throws in the fourth quarter until Bikram Thiara (nine points) ended the drought with a 3 with 1:11 to go, closing the Timberwolves in 37-33. Parmvir Singh then made a layup to slice in the deficit in half.
Olaleye was fouled on the next possession, made the first of two free throws and grabbed the offensive rebound after missing the second. It was he who fittingly iced it, securing a defensive rebound before sinking two free throws in the final seconds.
“They showed a lot of heart and toughness to win a game like that,” Lathrop coach Craig Ward said. “At the start of the fourth quarter I just told these guys, ‘Look, I’m going to sit down. I can’t play for you,’ and they stepped up and started playing a little harder. For three quarters I thought we were just going through the motions.”
Sierra 67, Lathrop 57
Jesse Ortiz-Martinez made six 3s and finished with 23 points to lead Sierra. Miguel Sequeira and Jaedon Malone each had 14.
Lathrop was paced by Walton Whaley’s 21 points, Isaiah Victor’s 15 and Rashawn Ballard’s 12.