Teams coming off a five-hour bus trip often start the game rusty.
That wasn’t the case for McKinleyville on Wednesday night. Instead, it wasn’t until a 12-2 run to open the second half that the host Lick-Wilmerding Tigers could breathe easy in their NCS Division IV opener.
Though the final margin was pared to just 8 at 70-62, sixth-seeded Lick-Wilmerding (22-7) led by as many as 22 and held a 20-point lead with four minutes to go before the visitors from Humboldt County finished the game on a 12-0 run.
The win is the fourth in a row for a Lick-Wilmerding team that’s playing its best at the right time. The Tigers defeated league co-champions Stuart Hall and University last week to win the BCL West Tournament after finishing league play tied for third place.
“We had injuries early in the year and were overmanned athletically as a result,” said head coach Eliot Smith. “We’ve dealt with a lot of adversity, but that gave other players opportunities to play. Last week against Stuart Hall, we had three starters out of the game for seven minutes because of fouls, and we were able to handle it because the other guys were confident.”
Even though the Tigers are red-hot, McKinleyville hung tough for much of the contest. The score was tied at 17 with a minute left in the first quarter and the Panthers trailed just 32-27 midway through the second quarter.
Mason Sand led all scorers with 24 points while Tyler Pelascini added 10 for McKinleyville (16-11) thanks to 6-for-6 free throw shooting. The Panthers shot 12-for-13 at the line.
“I thought McKinleyville played Lick-Wilmerding basketball in the first half: They played hard, they played together,” said Smith. “They might not have been as talented, but they played as a team and we played like individuals. Zach Johnson was the one guy who kept us in the game in the first half.”
Johnson led the Tigers with 21 points and 15 rebounds, including 10 offensive boards. Just a sophomore, Johnson will celebrate his 16th birthday on Thursday.
Smith continued, “in the second half, we started to play together and moved the ball.”
Johnson was joined in double-figures by three seniors who kept their season alive. Avi Leung finished with 18 points, Chip Thompson added 11 and Walter Lum scored 10.
“It’s about having another opportunity to practice together and play another game,” said Smith.
That game will be on Saturday night when the Tigers cross the Golden Gate Bridge to take on third-seeded Marin Catholic, led by University of San Diego-commit Joey Calcaterra. The winner will clinch a bid to the CIF State Tournament.