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Lowell-Mission to be classic clash of contrasts

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The Mission Bears will play SI on Tuesday. (Stan Olszewski/Special to S.F. Examiner)
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His team’s schedule may be filled with schools like Washington, Wallenberg and Balboa, but Lowell boys’ basketball coach Robert Ray always has one specific team in mind when his squad takes the court.

“Really, no matter who we’re playing, in a way, we’re always preparing for Mission,” said Ray, whose Cardinals will host the Bears at 5:30 p.m. today. “Each game, we’re trying to perfect a style of play that will help us be successful against those guys.”

That style is a methodical, defensive-minded approach that sees the Cardinals play plenty of games scoring in the 40s and 50s — not the 70s or 80s, where Mission typically resides. Ray’s emphasis on controlling the pace has paid dividends for the Cardinals, who enter their game against Mission sporting a 13-5 record, including 5-1 in the Academic Athletic Association, The City’s public schools league.

“There were probably some games this season where we could have forced the tempo a little and got out and run some more,” Ray said. “But if we’re going to go far this year, we have to focus on a style of play that works best for us, and the slower, more-patient kind of game is our specialty.”

The Cardinals low-key attack frustrated the Bears in the team’s first contest this season, which Mission won 46-36. No other AAA squad has come within 25 points against the Bears, who at 20-1, are putting together one of the most impressive seasons in recent memory by a public-school team.

That’s why Lowell has built their entire season around finding a way to slow Mission’s attack. However, that is obviously easier said than done.

Led by 6-foot-1 senior Niamey Harris, the defending AAA Player of the Year, the Bears are deep, talented and battle-tested, after enduring a rigorous nonconference schedule that saw them pick up wins against schools like Archbishop Riordan, San Ramon Valley and Menlo-Atherton.

Harris, who’s averaging over 15 points per game, is helped out by senior guards Jamion Wright and Jayden Foston, two ultraquick players who combine to put up nearly 28 points a contest and collectively form the best backcourt in the AAA. While Mission — which has won four of the past five San Francisco Section championships — has traditionally thrived with a frenetic style of play, this year’s team has been equally comfortable settling into a halfcourt game, due in large part to their veteran, heady senior guards.

Still, Mission coach Arnold Zelaya wants his team to force the action tonight against Lowell. For that to happen, his players need to create turnovers in the backcourt and get out and run at every opportunity.

“I have a tremendous amount of respect for Rob Ray and Lowell, and we know exactly how they want to come out against us,” said Zelaya. “The key is making them uncomfortable and getting them in a full-court game where we can take advantage of our quickness.”

Realistically, the game tonight is Mission’s last conceivable roadblock between an undefeated run in league play. With traditional powers like Lincoln and Washington suffering through down seasons, Mission is clearly the class of the AAA, although Lowell could play a spoiler. Zelaya said he’s had to remind his team at times not to look ahead.

“Occasionally, I have to be the bad guy and ground these guys a bit,” said Zelaya. “We tell them to only live in the exact moment. If things are going bad, we move on, and if things are going well, we don’t dwell on that. That philosophy has worked well for us so far.”

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