SALIDA – Jazz Swanson shuffled through the locker room, shoes untied with an aw-shucks smile painted across his face.
The Weston Ranch senior hasn’t felt this loose, this worry-free in over a month and it showed during Friday’s opening round victory at the 15th annual Modesto Christian Holiday Hoop Classic.
Swanson knocked down a season-high nine 3-pointers en route to 31 points as the Cougars negated Pleasant Grove’s height advantage in a 79-74 victory.
Weston Ranch (5-2) led by as many as 10 points in the fourth quarter, shaking off a 31-point loss to Immanuel in the final of the Holiday Invitational Tournament in Fresno last week.
Swanson’s corner 3 with 4:22 left made it 73-63, capping a career outing for the soft-spoken 3-point specialist. He connected on nine of his 12 attempts from beyond the arc, snapping out of a self-diagnosed season-long funk.
“I’ve really been in a shooting slump – like badly,” Swanson said. “I’ve haven’t been focused. I’ve had a lot of school work, working on college (applications) and scholarships and everything. Right now, we’re on break and my mind has been clear and I’m right back into it.
“It felt good. I used to shoot like that a lot, so it felt really good to get back into it. It was just catch-and-shoot.”
Weston Ranch coach Chris Teevan said Swanson’s “slump” hasn’t been much a slump at all, but he likes the expectations the still-developing specialist has for himself.
“He puts a lot of pressure on himself, which is weird because last year was his first year playing with us,” Teevan said. “... He hasn’t been shooting to his standards, but last game was the only game he hasn’t made at least three 3s. When he shoots we really do think it’s going in.”
Swanson’s stroke stole some of the shine away from the game’s biggest – and tallest – draw.
The Eagles came into the game boasting a requisite star for a tournament of this stature: 6-foot-10 Marquese Chriss, a University of Washington commit with a 7-foot wingspan.
Chriss didn’t disappoint, delighting the morning crowd with 22 points and a handful of blocked shots early as the Eagles scored 10 of the game’s first 11 points and led 43-42 at the half.
By then, though, one thing was clear: With Swanson and Jaelen Ragsdale launching 3s from all points west of Sisk Road, no lead was safe.
And it wasn’t.
Ragsdale finished with 22 points on three 3-pointers as Weston Ranch proved once again that Teevan’s guard-oriented system can play with, and at times, dominate teams with noticeable size advantages.
The Cougars made 15 3-pointers and received clutch 3s from Josh Dilg and Fred Lavender in the fourth quarter.
Dilg buried a wide-open 3 on Weston Ranch’s first possession of the fourth quarter to make it 58-58. Later, Lavender’s 3 from the top of the arc stretched the Cougars’ lead to 70-63.
Lavender scored nine of his 11 points in the second half, shaking off early foul trouble. He had seven points in the fourth quarter alone, including a pull-up jumper in the lane with 48 seconds left to seal it.
The Cougars also got solid minutes out of its undersized post, Jordan Strane (eight points) and Charles Udeze (four points), both of whom gave up seven inches to Chriss.
“We have 10 or 11 good players and they only had two,” Swanson said, “that’s why we won.”
Chriss had 13 points in the first half, including an alley-oop dunk in transition to give Pleasant Grove a 31-21 lead with 5:33 left in the first half.
The cushion would evaporate in a flash.
Chriss picked up his second foul on a blocking call near midcourt on the ensuing possession and was sent to the bench.
The Cougars closed with a 21-12 spurt, highlighted by four 3s off the fingers of Swanson. He nailed back-to-back corner 3s in a 30-second span to pull Weston Ranch within three, 37-34.
With Swanson stalking the arc and Chriss on the bench, Ragsdale found room in the paint and scored five straight points to give the Cougars a brief 42-41 advantage late in the first half.
“Jazz hasn’t been hitting shots as much as he usually does, but when he does, it spaces the floor and gives us driving lanes,” Ragsdale said. “it helps the whole team. It’s like an energy.”
Said Teevan: “Honestly, he’s the perfect player to play with Jaelen and Fred, because he spreads everything out. The kid works hard and puts in the time. We noticed it in warm-ups, he wasn’t missing.