David Dodd 1:48 a.m., May 18
Panthers tied with San Marcos atop standings with one game left
SAN MARCOS – In the wide-open Avocado East race, four teams started the final week of the regular season tied at the top with identical 5-3 records – including Vista and Mission Hills, who met on Tuesday night. In a battle between the league’s defending league co-champs, the visiting Panthers raced out to an early lead and held off a furious Grizzlies rally for a 60-51 victory.
“It’s really big, not only for the league championship but for the playoffs, too,” said Vista senior guard Sedrick Childress. “We want to get the highest seed possible.”
Vista (21-7, 6-3 Avocado East) scored the first 10 points of the game and jumped out to a commanding 23-5 lead at the end of the first quarter. Mission Hills (17-10, 5-4) struggled to solve the Panthers’ 3-2 zone early and dug itself into a hole with a handful of turnovers.
“We were just hyped,” Childress said. “We practice keeping our hands up in the zone and boxing out, and I think we did a pretty good job of that tonight.”
In the second quarter the Grizzlies settled in, but at halftime Vista still maintained a 17-point lead. Mission Hills had 11 turnovers in the first half – both forced and unforced.
“Credit to Vista, but a lot of the turnovers were also unforced – guys just being weak with the basketball, not coming to meet the ball, and trying to throw chest passes through a zone. We were in a generous mood,” said Mission Hills head coach Curtis Hofmeister.
Mission Hills slowly cut into Vista’s lead in the second half, and a three-pointer by Grizzlies junior guard Kibret Woldemichel made it 41-29 at the end of the third quarter. After Vista scored the first five points of the fourth quarter, the Grizzlies launched a furious comeback attempt spearheaded by a relentless 1-2-2 full court press.
“Sometimes when you get a big lead, you get into cruise mode and it takes a while to wake up again,” Hofmeister said. “If one team is going pedal to the metal, you can catch them napping for awhile.”
A 13-2 run brought Mission Hills within six of Vista with four minutes remaining, and Grizzlies senior guard Dolyn Hall hit a three that made it 50-45 with 2:57 left. Vista senior guard John Fletcher answered with a three-point play on the ensuing possession, and Mission Hills couldn’t get closer than five points the rest of the way as the Panthers hung on for the victory.
“I’m not going to lie, I got a little scared,” Childress said. “But my team pulled through, and I have to give props to all the guys that shot free throws and knocked them down.”
With the victory, Vista is now tied with San Marcos (18-8, 6-3) atop the competitive Avocado East. Though the Panthers and Knights are a game up headed into Thursday’s league finales, there is still a scenario in which five of the league’s six teams could end up tied for first.
“We have a lot of good coaches in the league and they all do a great job making adjustments,” said Vista head coach Charlie Mercado. “Everybody has capitalized on everybody else having misfortunes – we’ll take it right now.”
After losing three of its first four league games, Vista has won five straight to position itself for a league title. The Panthers haven’t lost since Fletcher returned to the lineup last week after missing seven games with a deep thigh bruise.
“I can’t even describe how tough it was during that stretch when he was gone – everybody was out of their roles and we didn’t know what was going on,” Mercado said. “We’re still not where we need to be, but we’re going in the right direction.”
Fletcher led Vista with 15 points to finish as one of three Panthers in double figures, and made all seven of his fourth-quarter free throw attempts. Mercado said the uncertainty surrounding Fletcher’s injury and return was both hard on the team and the senior point guard.
“I can’t begin to tell you how hard it was on him emotionally,” Mercado said. “The doctors were telling him they didn’t know when he would be back – it’s not like there’s a date for an injury like that.”
Hall led Mission Hills with 20 points, and Woldemichel added 12. The Grizzlies started league play with four straight wins, but have lost four of their last five since losing junior center Kameron Rooks to injury in late January.
Vista – 60 (23-7-11-19)
Fletcher 15, Childress 13, Co. Nyenhius 12, Arnold 9, Johnson 6 (starters) Stoner 5
Mission Hills – 51 (5-8-16-22)
Hall 20, Woldemichel 12, Reider 2, Delaney 2, Martinez 0 (starters) Brix 8, Nolan 3, Brown 2, J.L. Williams 2
Pictured: Mission Hills guard Dolyn Hall shoots a jumper over Vista forward Patrick Johnson