Timberwolves see NorCal title slip from their grasp

Woodcreek beaten by St. Francis at final buzzer
By: Kurt Johnson, The Press Tribune
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The victory that felt so close just slipped through the fingers of the Woodcreek High boys basketball team Saturday night at Arco Arena. The Timberwolves had possession of the ball, up one, with 15 seconds to go, but before they could celebrate a Northern California Division II basketball championship, St. Francis found a way to score the game-winner at the buzzer. Woodcreek came up on the short end of a 48-47 decision as its season came to an end one game short of a state title game. The one thing that was evident as the Timberwolves filed into the media room for the obligatory post-game news conference was that this was not the result they expected. This team felt like it was going to win and play again Friday night in Bakersfield. “Everyone is really disappointed right now,” said Woodcreek coach Burnel Pinkerton, “but when they have a chance to look back on this great run, it will be a great memory for them.” The contest was physical and low scoring, the kind of battle the Timberwolves have survived before but not the one they prefer. They nearly survived this one because they were able to match the St. Francis intensity with their own and were able to play some outstanding defense. “Definitely not our pace,” Pinkerton said. “We always want to play faster.” By slowing the game down, the Lancers were able to do their thing in the half court, and despite their disadvantage in the height department, it worked for them. Woodcreek was never really able to get its interior offense going, and its biggest problem came on the backboards. St. Francis killed the Timberwolves with 13 offensive rebounds in the first half alone, and just when it seemed that Woodcreek had fixed the problem in the second half, it reared its ugly head one last time, just before the final buzzer. After a Woodcreek turnover gave the Lancers the game’s final possession with 12 seconds remaining, St. Francis star Tyler Johnson gave up the ball to Spencer Britschgi, but his open 3-pointer bounced away. It looked like a Timberwolf win until 6-foot-3 Lancer senior Patrick Crowley grabbed the offensive rebound and got the ball back up on the glass and down to turn a one-point deficit into a one-point victory. “It is one of those things you dream about,” Crowley said. “I was lucky the ball bounced to me, and then I pump-faked, he jumped and I was fortunate to hit the shot.” While the Lancers poured onto the floor to celebrate a dramatic win, Woodcreek was left to ponder on what might have been. “It’s not a lot of run right now,” Pinkerton said. “Our last three games have been very close. It’s like life, a game of inches. If he hits the shot they are diving all over the floor, and if he misses it we’re diving all over the floor.” Shooting the ball was a nightmare for both teams, a combination of good defense and the difficulty of shooting at Arco Arena. Woodcreek hit just 16-of-46 shots in the contest, and St. Francis was 20-of-63 from the field. “We thought we could keep them from shooting well here, and I think we did well with that,” Pinkerton said. The Timberwolves shot the ball well in the first half, and took a 15-10 lead after the initial period. With the inside being unkind to Woodcreek, the guards picked up the scoring load. In the first stanza, it was Ryan Milat with six points that led the way, while Ryan Sondhi and Devin Murphy were also solid at the offensive end. Woodcreek hit just two field goals in the second quarter as St. Francis go even at 23-23 by intermission. As the teams headed to the locker rooms, Milat had 10 points for the Timberwolves, but 6-foot-11 center Mike Kurtz and Sierra Foothill League MVP Nik Milani had just two points a piece. The second half was played much like the first, as the Lancers were physical with Woodcreek, and St. Francis pulled out to a six-point lead to open the third before Woodcreek answered to get right back even. The Timberwolves made some plays of their own, and survived the dynamic offensive game of Johnson, who had a huge third quarter before leveling off in the fourth. St. Francis led by two points after three quarters, and the game came down to execution down the stretch. A huge 3-pointer by Sondhi put Woodcreek on top 46-45 with just 1:15 remaining. With 1:02 left, Johnson’s shot was rejected by Kurtz, his sixth blocked shot of the night, and then with 41 seconds to go, Sondhi was fouled while driving baseline to the hole. The senior point guard hit one of two shots to increase the advantage to a deuce. Britschgi missed a shot at the 25-second mark, and Kurtz battled for the rebound and then went to the charity stripe after being fouled. After the Woodcreek center missed the front end of a one-and-one, Johnson was fouled in the act of shooting, and he made just one of the tosses. Now leading by a single point with 15 seconds left, the Timberwolves attempted to get the ball in bounds to Kurtz, but under defensive pressure from Johnson, he lost the ball out of bounds and St. Francis was set up for its crowning moment. Johnson wanted to drive to the basket, but his path was taken away by outstanding Woodcreek defense, so he pitched the ball back to Britschgi for an open three staring straight down the barrel. The shot was not close, but the follow was good, and the celebration ensued. “I wanted to get to the hoop,” Johnson said. “The cut me off, and then I saw the double coming from Spence’s guy so I made the pass.” Johnson, a 6-1 senior, scored 19 points and pulled down 10 rebounds for St. Francis. Britschgi added nine points and seven boards and Crowley had 10 rebounds to go with six points. “I just get them started and let them go,” said St. Francis coach Mike Motil. “They go out and make the plays and good teams find different ways to win.” The result sends St. Francis on to the state D-II title game Friday night in Bakersfield, while the loss ends Woodcreek’s season with a spectacular record of 28-6. Milat finished the game with a team-high 14 points and also grabbed six rebounds. Kurtz scored 10 points and pulled down nine boards, while Milani scored six while ripping eight boards. Sondhi had nine points and Nik Stathopoulos grabbed six rebounds in the Timberwolves’ final game of the year. “It was two great teams, evenly matched teams going to war and I have to give them credit,” Pinkerton said. “Our kids have a ton of heart and determination and we are never out of games. We just play too hard. We are just a bunch of public school kids, old-fashioned kids playing hoop. We are old school.”