The Sierra boys basketball stepped into the telephone booth a shaken No. 3 seed on the cusp of an embarrassing home defeat.
It re-emerged an almost unstoppable force.
Devin Nunez knocked down seven 3-pointers and Daniel Wyatt served as the free-wheeling, dime-dealing maestro in the Timberwolves’ wild 82-78 victory over No. 11 Vallejo in the second round of the Division III tournament on Friday evening.
Sierra trailed by as many as 12 points in the first half, but erupted for 32 points in the third quarter to clinch a berth in Tuesday’s semifinal round at Cosumnes River College.
“Once we went into half we knew they delivered the first blow, so we knew we had to come back,” Wyatt said. “We put it all in — everything we had. We knew this would be the end of our season if we didn’t.”
The Timberwolves will face No. 2 Vanden, while a pair of Valley Oak League teams will duke it out in the other semifinal.
Weston Ranch will face Manteca for a third time this season, meaning at least one Manteca Unified school will play at Sleep Train Arena, the site of the section finals.
Sierra remained alive thanks to a spirited second-half comeback sparked by guards Wyatt and Nunez.
“They’re playing inspired basketball right,” Sierra coach Scott Thomason said of his often overlooked backcourt.
Wyatt finished with 22 points, five assists and registered the game’s biggest moment, turning a steal into a three-point play with 56.2 seconds left.
Wyatt ripped the ball away from Evan Austrie and raced the length of the court, absorbing contact at the rim as he finished off the glass. His free throw pushed Sierra into the lead for good, 78-76.
“I had to do whatever I could to get our team back into it,” said Wyatt, who left the game momentarily in the second half after a collision near midcourt.
Four free throws, two apiece by Hunter Johnson and Jess Spivey, finally put away the scrappy and athletic Apaches (11-14).
“We were fortunate we only had three team fouls. We told DJ and the guys to reach a little bit. Go for the steal; who cares if you foul,” Thomason said. “He made a big play right there.”
Nunez tallied a team-high 27 points, raining down 3-pointers from all spots along the arc. The senior guard carried the Timberwolves through rough waters early, scoring 11 of the team’s 29 first-half points.
Nunez drilled four of his seven 3s in the second half. As the Apaches tired and their defense sagged, Nunez continued to work, diving around screens and running to open spaces.
“What else can you say about Devin Nunez?” Thomason said. “He makes big play after big play — on Wednesday night and Friday night. He’s playing with a sense of urgency right now.”
Johnson chipped in 14 points and 13 rebounds and Spivey finished with nine points for the Timberwolves, who survived despite another frustrating, foul-ridden evening for 6-foot-8 center Joshua Patton.
The Sacramento State-bound senior had six points, seven rebounds and two blocked shots. He sat for the final 5 minutes, 53 seconds of the first half after picking up his third foul.
Patton made his minutes in the third quarter count, scoring all six of his points during Sierra’s torrid run.
He tallied the first four points of the half to awaken the home crowd, and his layup with 2:12 remaining in the quarter gave the Timberwolves their first lead of the game, 52-51.
“We obviously needed more our big guys,” Thomason said. “They didn’t do nothing for us in the first half, but they made plays when they we needed them to.”
Sierra’s improvement from one half to the next was stark and probably best depicted with numbers:
u The Timberwolves had just one turnover in the final 16 minutes, as opposed to eight in the first eight minutes of the game. Vallejo’s press was suffocating early, fueling their fast-break offense and confidence.
u Sierra outrebounded the Apaches 13-4 in the third quarter, including 6-3 on the offensive glass. In the second quarter, when Vallejo built a 40-29 halftime lead, Sierra was beaten 10-5 on the glass and yielded five offensive rebounds.
u Sierra attacked the rim with Wyatt, resulting in an overwhelming advantage at the free-throw line. The Timberwolves were 13 of 15 from the charity stripe. By comparison, Vallejo was just 4 of 6.
Inside the phone booth at halftime, Thomason dressed his team for a super second-half performance.
“I told them ‘I believe in you guys.’ I told them not to panic; that there was plenty of time,” Thomason said. “We weren’t playing very good basketball in the first half. Too timid and I don’t understand why at this stage.”
Jabar Brown scored 15 of his 24 points in the first half and silenced the Sierra crowd with a two-handed dunk. Delvon Burrell had 18 points and Evan Austrie finished with 17 points for the Apaches, whose short bench was tested when center Jordan Briseno left the game with a leg injury.
Briseno had eight points. When he was carried off the court by coaches with 2:37 left in the first half, Vallejo was running away from Sierra, 34-23.
He never returned, opening the door for Sierra, a team that has yet to put together a fluid four-quarter performance in the playoffs. The Timberwolves have won 12 consecutive games.
No. 13 will have to come at the expense of Vanden, a 77-47 winner over Vista del Lago on Friday.
Thomason knows Sierra will have to be super from the start.
“We know we have to play for 32 minutes the next game,” he added. “Vanden is big time.”