By Jeff Weisinger
Special to S.F. Examiner
KEZAR PAVILION — In the first game of an Academic Athletic Association semifinal doubleheader, the Mission High School Bears manhandled Lowell High School 76-34 to advance to Friday night’s championship round. Wednesday night’s result was nowhere near the close, six-point win they had over Lowell last month during the regular season.
“The guys are pretty focused,” Mission head coach Arnold Zelaya said after the win. “Lowell has a funny way of playing us tight all the time. Going back to the last two championship games, they always find a way to play us tight, so the kids were pretty dialed in, they’re pretty focused. We just jumped on them and never looked back.”
Mission leapt to an 8-0 run in the opening minutes, sparked by a pair of surprise three-pointers from the wing by senior forward Ahjae Holdman. Holdman finished with 12 points on the night, while Mission’s Ben Knight finished with a game-high 16 points with David Sonnier scoring 14.
“We came out strong because last time, we came out strong but they were able to come back,” Knight said. “(The hot start) gets us pumped especially when our big man (Holdman) is making threes. When he’s playing like that, he’s got it going and usually we get it going.”
Holdman’s three-pointers to start the game were followed by an aggressive, press-defense sparked Mission’s 21-8 lead after just the first quarter.
“We wanted to force our pace,” Zelaya said. “I think in the second game (against Lowell in the regular season) they did a good job of forcing their pace which was a little more deliberate, slowing it down. We really worked on just pushing our pace and making sure to share the ball and attack the rim, not being passive.”
Mission only got stronger as the game went on, taking a commanding 47-18 halftime lead with junior guard Andre Villarino hitting a deep three with over just a minute left to put the Bears up 43-18. Sophomore guard Reggie Torno added a layup in traffic in the final seconds of the half to give Mission a 29-point lead at the half.
“When we got out there, we just weren’t doing what we were working on,” Lowell head coach Chris Lardiotis said. “It just got away from us. What went wrong is we didn’t stick to our game plan and part of it is because Mission is really good and it’s hard to replicate their quickness in practice.
“They beat us in every phase of the game for sure.”
Lowell strung together a couple of shots in the final minute against Mission’s bench, however, the game was already well in control.
The win was the Bears’ 53rd in a row against AAA competition.
Lincoln 77, Washington 62
The second semifinal of the night featured a shootout between the Lincoln Mustangs and the Washington Eagles.
Both teams traded shots and blows left and right, but in the end, Lincoln survived, pulling away in the final minutes of the game to take the 77-62 win.
“We knew it was going to be tough,” Lincoln head coach Carl Jacobs said. “Washington’s a good squad, well coached, their coach knows us like the back of his hand, all of our offense, but it’s a battle of mental states. You know, sometimes it just comes down to who wants it more.”
The two teams traded the lead back and forth in the opening minutes of the game. Washington senior guard Jackie Luong hit an early three to give Washington the early 3-2 lead, however the Mustangs responded immediately with a three of their own by senior forward Gabino Valdivia, giving Lincoln the early 5-3 lead.
Freshman point guard Jordan Aquino also hit a layup at the buzzer to keep the Mustangs up by six, 23-17 after the first, and his layup, plus the and-1, gave Lincoln a six-point lead heading into halftime.
As much as Washington rallied throughout the game, Lincoln managed to stay one step ahead of the Eagles, hanging onto a 42-39 halftime lead.
“I credit that to the senior leadership,” Jacobs said. “We’ve been in some tough games in the preseason which really helped us at this point. They’re not worried about what just happened, they move on to the next play.”
The Mustangs started to pull away in the third quarter, going on an 8-2 run in the final minutes of the quarter to try to go up by double-digits for the first time of the night. However, as they did all night, the Eagles pulled back to within four as junior forward Mack Yates hit a layup and got the and-1 with 1:46 left in the quarter.
Washington would never manage to pull ahead, though, as Lincoln outscored the Eagles 22-11 in the final nine minutes of the game to come away with the win. They will play Mission Friday night at 7 p.m. at Kezar Pavilion.
“Mission is established,” Jacobs said about Friday night’s AAA championship matchup. “Those guys come in and they fit into their program. They know they’re just winners. They know they’re winners on the inside, so they’re never going to give up, they’re never going to stop fighting. You have to play with Mission to the end.”
Prior to Lincoln’s win, Zelaya was hoping for a good matchup for Mission for the league title game. Knight, on the other hand, wanted the Mustangs, and only the Mustangs.
“I want to play Lincoln,” Knight excitedly said. “They had some good games with us too, don’t get me wrong. But I want to play Lincoln.”
Mission beat Lincoln twice during the regular season, 79-60 at Lincoln on Jan. 18 and 79-74 at home on Feb. 11.
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