Ken Leighton 5 p.m., Jan. 24
Red Devils race past Cougars to claim share of league title
SAN YSIDRO – Sweetwater saved its best performance of the year for its regular season finale. Thursday night the Red Devils knocked off sixth-ranked San Ysidro in a 91-86 shootout that earned a split the South Bay League title with the defending champion Cougars.
“We haven’t won the banner in 21 years – this means the world to us,” said Sweetwater senior guard Johnny Gonzalez.
Sweetwater (17-11, 11-1 South Bay) had a two-point after a fast-paced first quarter and broke a 26-26 tie midway through the second quarter with a 10-0 run. The Red Devils led by as many as 14 points in the second, and had a 48-41 lead over San Ysidro (23-5, 11-1) at halftime.
“I thought it was going to be a (close) game throughout,” Gonzalez said. “I was thinking ‘We got this, we just have to finish this – this is our game.’”
After a back and forth start to the second half, Sweetwater stretched its lead late in the third quarter. Red Devils sophomore guard Spencer Mattox made a layup in the final seconds of a 26-point quarter to put Sweetwater ahead by a considerable 74-58 margin.
“The first time we played them we missed free throws, missed layups and played poor defense,” Mattox said. “Today we came in focused and we knew what we had to do – it was defense first.”
Despite facing a 16-point deficit at the start of the fourth quarter, San Ysidro quickly got back into the game. The Cougars scored the first 11 points of the quarter as part of a 16-2 run, and with 4:20 remaining pulled to within two of Sweetwater on a three-pointer by senior guard Ronald Stewart.
“It was surprising for us to be up by that much, and for them to make that run was expected,” Mattox said. “We just had to hold them off.”
San Ysidro’s rally set up a back and forth final stretch that saw a total of 27 points in the final four minutes. The Cougars appeared on the verge of completing the comeback when Gonzalez hit a deflating corner three with 3:09 left that gave Sweetwater an 82-75 lead.
“It was just momentum and adrenaline,” Gonzalez said. “I couldn’t get those shots if it wasn’t for my point guard – my teammates got me the ball.”
With 18 seconds left San Ysidro senior guard Javion Watson hit a long-range jumper to make it a three-point game, but that was as close as the Cougars would get. Sweetwater made five free throws in the final minute, and with 13.3 seconds to play Mattox secured the Red Devils’ victory from the free throw line.
“It was unbelievable. It was like a dream, and I could not imagine it any better,” Mattox said.
Gonzalez led Sweetwater with 32 points, and Mattox added 21 – including 14 in the first half. The win secures the Red Devils’ first league title since 1991 and assures them a playoff berth for the first time in four seasons after narrowly missing out on the postseason last year.
“It all starts with practice,” said Sweetwater senior forward Junior Bautista. “We can’t be lacking in practice or fooling around – we have to go hard.”
Two seasons removed from a winless 2009-10 campaign, Sweetwater is celebrating a league title. Sweetwater has enjoyed a quick turnaround under second-year head coach Jesse Aguirre, an alum who played basketball for the Red Devils in the 1980s.
“We’re putting Sweetwater back on the map,” Mattox said.
Watson scored a game-high 33 points for San Ysidro despite battling foul trouble throughout the game, and finished as one of four Cougars in double figures. San Ysidro has shared the South Bay League title each of the past two seasons.
Sweetwater – 91 (20-28-26-17)
Gonzalez 32, Mattox 21, Bautista 15, Cadua 13, Middleton 8 (starters) Crutcher 2
San Ysidro – 86 (18-23-17-28)
Watson 33, R. Steward 18, Paris 15, Ahumada 10, Tarrant 7 (starters) Sharpe 3
Pictured: Sweetwater guard Spencer Mattox absorbs contact from San Ysidro guard Ronald Stewart to draw a charging call
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