LICK-WILMERDING — Typically, a first-round North Coast Section Division IV matchup against a Humboldt County opponent would have meant unfamiliarity for the Lick-Wilmerding Tigers, but head coach Eliot Smith had a good idea of what his team was in for as the McKinleyville Panthers came to San Francisco on Wednesday night.
“Usually you don’t have film of a team from that area, but we faced them two years ago, and fortunately their tendencies were similar to that game,” Smith said.
That meant the Tigers had to avoid getting into a 3-point shooting contest against a team that loves to fire from beyond the arc. Fortunately for Smith’s team, Zach Johnson was there to control the post, and with his 29 points and 16 rebounds, plus a few timely shots from Phin Horowitz, eighth-seeded Lick-Wilmerding (19-9) did, in fact, do enough to push past the ninth-seeded Panthers, winning 66-56 to set up a quarterfinal matchup with top-seeded Branson.
After a basket by Ryan Chin put the hosts up by 15 early in the third, McKinleyville (13-12) got fired up on a dunk by A.J. Stubbs. The Panthers cut the deficit to six by the end of the quarter and trailed by just three two minutes into the fourth when Kameron Conlin’s 3-pointer made it 52-49.
That’s when Johnson, who had already posted a double-double by halftime, reasserted himself, scoring on a third-chance tip-in to start a 10-0 run that ultimately decided the game. Allen Wilson then hit a floater in the lane and split a pair of free throws to put the Tigers up by eight, and a Horowitz 3-pointer made it 60-49 with just under three minutes remaining.
“Zach’s drawing guys consistently, and he’s able to get open shots for everyone,” said Horowitz, who scored 10 of his 16 points in the first half.
While Johnson was strictly in a post role in prior years, he’s taken to handling the ball on the perimeter more as a senior after the Tigers graduated point guard Walter Lum, who was in attendance Wednesday night.
“I’ve always had the ability to drive, but Walter always took care of that in the past,” Johnson said. “Right now, I’ve gotten opportunities to drive more and handle the ball outside.”
Finding a ball handler was a struggle for Lick-Wilmerding early in the year, but sophomore Ryan Chin has stepped up in that department as of late. He also scored seven points in the second half, hitting five of his six free throws, and he’s an integral part of the Tigers’ defense.
“Ryan’s really pesky on defense,” Horowitz said. “That 1-2-2 press wouldn’t be possible without him.”
The win has Lick-Wilmerding needing just one more win for a fourth consecutive state tournament appearance, but doing so would require a victory against the top-seeded Bulls on Saturday night at College of Marin, Branson’s home gym.
“I consider Branson to be the best of the best,” Smith said. “When you get the opportunity to face such a great team, it’s a great test of our skills and where we are right now.”
A notoriously stingy defensive team allowing just 38.8 points per game, Branson is 26-2 on the year, with the two losses coming to Riordan and Sacramento-area power Sheldon. The Bulls beat Stuart Hall by 16 and held Sacred Heart Cathedral to just 35 points in a December matchup.
“We’ve got to stay with our fundamentals,” Johnson said. “We’ve had a lot of turnovers this season, but we didn’t have many today. If we limit them and run our stuff, we should be all right.”
If the Tigers are looking for a positive sign entering Saturday, their last three state tournament trips all started with a first-round win over a Humboldt County team. They beat McKinleyville in 2017 and took down Arcata last year.
Isaac Puzz led the Panthers with 18, Stubbs had 16 and Freddie Sundberg added nine. Wilson had 12 for the Tigers.
Girls: Lick-Wilmerding 70, Ygnacio Valley 29: The Tigers wasted little time to show that they felt they deserved better than a sixth seed in the NCS Division IV bracket, opening up a 20-point lead by halftime and allowing just 10 points over the final two quarters to set up a Saturday tilt with third-seeded Marin Catholic.
Traditionally a guard-heavy team that shoots the lights out from beyond the arc, a rare unfriendly night from the home rims was no trouble for Lick-Wilmerding (23-5) as sophomore center Daisy Maunupau scored 14 points. Freshman Annabel Schneiberg scored eight of her 10 in the first quarter, sophomore Ava Grey had 14 and freshman Dominique Cabading scored 10. Ygnacio Valley (20-7) got 12 points and 13 rebounds from Auxanne Beugre and nine points from freshman Niamey Guillory.