EL CERRITO — Even with Thursday’s 85-81 loss to Vanden in the first round of El Cerrito’s Gaucho Holiday Hoops Classic, one of the Bay Area’s best tournaments, it’s clear to see that the Mission Bears are growing up fast.
What looked like a disjointed team less than a month ago is now sprinting the floor, forcing turnovers — 22 of them to be exact — and pushing a perennial state title contender to the limit before ultimately coming up short in a madcap game played at breakneck speed.
“The effort was definitely there,” said head coach Arnold Zelaya. “It’s trial by fire for us.”
Facing an early 21-7 deficit, it looked like Mission would be purely outclassed by Vikings due to their superior size, speed and skill, but the Bears closed the first on a 10-2 run and never went away.
Two free throws by Ben Knight tied the game at 74 with 2:45 left before Vanden (6-2) finally went on a 9-1 run to put the game out of reach, with Jonathan Cobbs scoring six of his team-high 32 during the stretch. After a go-ahead Agjanti Miller three, Cobbs scored off an Isaac Montgomery steal and scored inside on the following possession. His two free throws with 1:07 left all but sealed things.
In those last minutes and the first six, Vanden looked like a phenomenal team and did enough to get a small level of revenge for the 2016 NorCal championship loss to Mission, though few players from that game are still around.
One of the players who is still in the fold is Knight, whose 36 points were amazingly just his third-highest output of the season. Aside from a five-point third quarter, he scored at least nine in every frame and shot 16-of-21 from the charity stripe. Combine that with 21 points from Jaraughn Torno, who sank five 3-pointers, and Mission (4-4) can score with the best of them.
Six straight free throws by Knight tied the game in the second quarter at 34, and six points from Torno fueled a 10-3 run to tie the game at 53 midway through the third. A 7-0 run to close the quarter, with a Torno three and another drive to the hoop by Knight, left the teams even at 62.
The bench is also coming into focus for Zelaya, including seven points from Ahkeem Lewis, with a perfect 5-for-5 night at the line. Julian Milton scored five and took care of David Sonnier’s position while the Riordan transfer dealt with foul trouble.
Mission’s gauntlet of a nonleague schedule continues with the second day of El Cerrito’s tournament, a 4 p.m. showdown with Campolindo.