A win against one of their top Western Athletic Conference opponents kept the Mountain House boys in first place in the WAC basketball standings going into the final week of the regular season.
Friday’s 79-77 victory at Lathrop High put the Mustangs (19-7, 11-1 WAC) past their strongest league rivals and on track to win their second consecutive WAC title. The Lathrop Spartans (17-7, 9-3 WAC) dropped to third place in the league. Beyer (16-9, 10-2 WAC), in second place, is the only team that has defeated the Mustangs in league play.
Lathrop had a chance to create a three-way tie for first place, and threatened to do just that throughout Friday’s game.
The Mustangs started off in the lead and were up 23-16 at the end of the first quarter. The Spartans quickly caught up early in the second quarter. The two teams then traded the lead eight times before the Mustangs could pull away again for a 39-34 halftime lead.
The Spartans came back to outscore the Mustangs 30-15 in the third quarter. Lathrop was up by 14 points, 68-54, early in the fourth quarter. It was the biggest lead either team would have all night.
“We weren’t playing our best basketball,” Mountain House senior David Gomez said. “We weren’t playing team ball, and we had a huddle and our coach was talking to us and he told us, ‘Hey, we’ve got to play for each other. We’ve got to work together,’ and that’s exactly what we did. We worked as a team. We got steals. We got fast breaks and that’s what we had to do, and that’s because we played as a team.”
The Mustangs then launched into a 15-1 scoring run, boosted by a series of steals.
“Our coach said we need to pick up the intensity because this is our game to win,” said senior Jalen Zeno. “We picked up the intensity and made good defensive plays so they would make bad passes and I was able to get those steals and pass it back up.”
Coach Nolan Dixon said that the Mustangs just needed a positive mindset so they could close out the fourth quarter playing the game they’re capable of.
“When we called timeout, we came to the sideline and they were saying, ‘We can’t do this, we can’t do that.’ I said, the only thing I hear is ‘can’t.’ I don’t want to hear that anymore. I want to see solutions. I want to hear about solutions. I want to hear that we can,” Dixon said. “I guess the guys bought into that. We came out and got six steals in a row.”
The score was tied 69-69 with 3:20 left on the clock, but the game still was far from over. The Spartans got the lead back, but they were unable to solidify their control of the game after Lathrop junior Eddie Cotton, who led the Spartans’ third-quarter comeback with his rebounds and put-backs, fouled out with 2:45 left.
In the final minute, Mountain House junior Nikko Rodriguez hit a field goal to tie it up 74-74 and Gomez sank a 3-point shot to put the Mustangs up 77-74. Lathrop junior Daniel Whaley answered with his own 3-pointer, and in the final half minute, the Mustangs focused on maintaining possession until the shot clock was about to run out. Rodriguez then drove inside for a shot and was fouled in the effort.
That gave Rodriguez two free throws, and he made them both. Lathrop made one final drive at the basket but missed the shot, and the clock ran out as players from both teams scrambled for the rebound.
“I liked the way we finished. We attacked hard. We saw that we were down in the third and then we just kept going,” Rodriguez said.
“Once we got that lead we got hyped and we kept going. We just played pressure defense. We scared them into making bad passes, because you could see they were wild at the end. They started throwing the ball away and we just loved that.”
Rodriguez led the Mustangs with 25 points, including 9 of 10 free throws, and he had seven rebounds. Gomez scored 18 points, senior Tavio Meeks scored 14 points, and Zeno had 10 rebounds and three steals.
Lathrop’s statistical leaders included Cotton, who scored 20 points and pulled in 21 rebounds, and Whaley, who scored 22 points.