Bill Callaway picked quite a time to play a hunch.
With its season in the balance and four hours of open road behind it, the Shasta boys basketball team went off script in a shocking 66-56 victory over Sierra in the first round of the CIF Northern California playoffs.
“They dictated what we did tonight,” Sierra coach Scott Thomason said with his arms folded, his gaze burning a hole in the ground.
To be fair, even Callaway didn’t know what to expect from his road weary bunch.
The Wolves entered The Den as the tournament’s 13th and final seed with a ho-hum 15-12 record and reeling after a 19-point loss to Enterprise in the North Section final.
“We’re a lot like the Lakers,” Callaway said.
Strike that: These Wolves are a lot like the Lakers hope they’ll be.
Shasta sprung the upset by abandoning everything that got it to this point. Callaway experimented with his defenses. He tinkered with his rotations. He asked nothing of his boys other than to believe; to trust each other and his wacky white board tactics.
Callaway went to a hockey-style substitution pattern, sending four and five guys into the game at a time … in the first quarter.
He switched defenses – bouncing between man and a 1-3-1 zone – testing the aptitude of Sierra’s chief playmakers and its fiery coach.
The boys in purple played with a pace and precision that unraveled the Timberwolves, who lost consecutive games for the first time all season.
“It’s not something we’ve been doing all season. It’s not something we’ve practiced a whole lot, either, but it’s something I’ve been toying with,” Callaway said. “The kids practiced well this week and it was like, ‘OK, let’s try this.’ ”
The chess move left Sierra exposed in the second half. When it came time to win the game, the Timberwolves appeared fatigued.
They scored just seven points in the third quarter and Guillermo Nunez (20 points) was held scoreless for the final 6 minutes, 36 seconds.
“Maybe fatigue crept in,” Thomason said. “I’m not sure.”
Here’s what we do know: The loss is really quite easy to explain.
The Timberwolves – so consistent and dominant all season long – were beaten in nearly every facet of the game.
Shasta forced Sierra into 17 turnovers, including 11 in the first half to stay within one (34-33) heading into the intermission.
More disturbing for Thomason and his coaching staff were the number of wasted opportunities and empty possessions. Both Eric Melgar and Nunez were guilty of sloppy passes.
Meanwhile, Shasta had no trouble breaking the Timberwolves’ full-court press, penetrating the lane and finding its shot.
Early on, the Wolves’ shot of choice was the 3. They hit four in the opening eight minutes.
“We’ve been struggling lately, so we came out tonight with the attitude that we weren’t going to lose,” said Mason Phillips, who was like a drop of nitrous oxide off the bench for the Wolves.
Phillips finished with nine points and his no-look pass to Brandon Eboigbodin (12 points) with 3:44 left started a 14-6 finishing kick.
“They did a great job today,” Phillips added, “but so did we.”
Shasta was better in the paint, too, outscoring Sierra’s front line 20-18.
Shasta was also better from the free-throw line, where it made 7 of 8 in the fourth quarter to finish off the Timberwolves.
Shasta even won the mental war – no easy feat against a Thomason-coached team. The wolves ratcheted up the pace early and then grinded on Sierra late with its zone defense.
All the while, its confidence bloomed.
“We believed,” Callaway said.
By the second quarter, Shasta could smell blood.
By the end of the third, with forward Justin Patton wincing and holding a towel to his mouth, Shasta could see it.
The Wolves closed the quarter on a 6-2 run after Patton left the game with blood on his lips. The Sierra forward bit his tongue when he collided with Shasta’s Gavin Graham on a pick.
When he returned to start the fourth quarter, the Timberwolves trailed 44-41. Nunez would tie the game with a 3-pointer, but Sierra would never lead again.
“We’ve talked a lot lately about finishing. We’ve had trouble with that – it’s been that way all year,” Callaway said. “Tonight, it all came together.”
He had a hunch it would.