Sierra already proved to be the best in the Valley Oak League for a fourth straight season.
Tonight in the Sac-Joaquin Section Division III semifinals, the third-seeded Timberwolves (27-2) will find out if they are the best in the Solano County Athletic Conference, too. After dispatching two SCAC teams with deceptive losing records, they’ll face the best of the bunch in No. 2 Vanden (24-5) of Fairfield at Sacramento’s Cosumnes River College.
The winner gets No. 5 Manteca or No. 9 Weston Ranch in the championship round Friday night at Sleep Train Arena. Sierra, 0-3 in section title games, is looking to reach the finals for the third time in the last four years.
Head coach Scott Thomason said his team’s rumbles with No. 14 Fairfield (13-14) and No. 11 Vallejo (11-14) have it prepared for the next challenge. The Timberwolves opened with a 61-49 win over Fairfield, which was down by just two early in the fourth quarter. It was Fairfield that handed Vanden its only SCAC loss in the regular-season finale.
Conference runner-up Vallejo was a low-seeded opponent no one wanted to see early, and the Red Hawks proved why with their first-round upset of No. 6 Florin, 81-79. Two days later, they gave Sierra all it could handle in an 82-78 loss.
“The two teams we played were very good teams,” Thomason said. “Vallejo is a lot better than people think; they have some big-time athletes. Fairfield is athletic, very scrappy, well-coached and they play hard.
“I think those two games were perfect for us to prepare for this one and any other ones we’ll see. We got tested and we showed some resiliency and toughness and I hope it carries over to tomorrow.”
Vanden is also tested having gone toe-to-toe with some of Northern California’s heavyweights. On Nov. 29 the Vikings came up on the losing end of a 65-63 decision against El Cerrito, the North Coast Section’s No. 1 seed in the Division II playoffs and the state’s 14th-ranked team (No. 2 in Division II) by CalHiSports.com. Other notable defeats were to San Francisco-based Sacred Heart Prep and Sacramento’s Christian Brothers, the SJS’s top-seed in Division III that was stunned by Weston Ranch in the quarterfinals.
Vanden is equipped with a twin-tower tandem to counter Joshua Patton, Sierra’s 6-foot-8 center heading to Sacramento State. Senior forward Jihad Woods (13.4 points and 9.2 rebounds) and senior center Jansen Smith (4.8 points, 9.9 rebounds, 1.8 blocks) also stand at 6-8, though Woods possesses guard skills.
Vanden’s best player, however, is SCAC Most Valuable Player DeMarre Walker. The 6-foot sensation averages 21 points and 6.6 assists and is flanked by another dangerous guard in Thomas Avent (12.9 points).
“We have a good game plan, we feel, we just have to carry it out,” Thomason said. “Whoever wins the rebounding battle is going to be successful. It’s two evenly-matched teams. They’ve had a great year and we’ve had a great year. We’ll find out who the best team is (tonight).”
Sierra has done well to make it this far with its star center slowed by an illness and foul trouble during the first week of the postseason. Patton had just six points in each of the Timberwolves’ first two games, but 6-4 forward Hunter Johnson had double-doubles in both contests while senior guard Devin Nunez totaled 12 3-pointers in amassing 45 points (22.5-point average). Juniors Jess Spivey (14 points against Fairfield) and Daniel Wyatt (22 points against Vallejo) have also been huge.
Thomason anticipates Patton being back to his normal self tonight.
“I’m not worried about him,” Thomason said. “Last week he was struggling and I feel like he’s going to be back to normal. He’ll be ready to play. He’ll be the old Josh Patton.”