LODI — Rolaun Dunham walked out of the locker room thinking that if he had made a few more free throws ...
Curtis Porter III walked out of the locker room thinking that if he had gotten to one more loose ball ...
Reilly Nabors walked out of the locker room thinking that if just one more of his shots hadn’t rolled off the rim ...
The last two guys on the Riverbank High bench walked out of the locker room thinking that if they had supported their teammates just a little harder ...
On bad teams, that is, teams with a bad heart, the blame for losses – such as the Bruins’ 66-62 loss to Natomas late Wednesday night – always is heaped on the other guy; the teammate on the receiving end of the pointed-finger.
There was not an ounce of deflection coming from the Riverbank players as they walked through an empty Tokay High gym having lost a semifinal game on this floor for the third straight season. Every player walked away knowing he had given every thing possible to help the Bruins win, and the tears were not as much from sadness or anger but of frustration.
How could they have played so hard and so well and still lost?
Statistically, the answer to that is easy. Riverbank made only 10 of 22 free throws, including only two of six in the final two minutes when the game and the elusive trip to Sleep Train Arena for a Sac-Joaquin Section title game slipped away.
“I think we played well, but down the stretch some of the loose balls didn’t go our way and some of the rebounds didn’t go our way,” Porter said. “We missed some free throws and that’s what cost us the game.”
They also were done in by one of the most remarkable performances by a freshman in section playoff history. Mehki Williams, a six-footer already wearing a man’s body, erupted for 31 points, nine coming in the final 5:33.
His spin to the basket for a three-point play gave the Nighthawks the lead for good at 56-55, and he would add a 3-pointer and another twisting layup to hold off the Bruins.
Riverbank twice went to the line in the final 34 seconds with a chance to tie the game, only to miss three of four shots. Then with 10.9 seconds left, Williams made the first of his two free throws to give Natomas a 64-62 lead, but his second was short and caromed wildly in the lane.
Had the Bruins been able to corral the ball they would have had one more chance. Instead, it ended up in the hands of Artrell Smith, who promptly sealed the game with two free throws.
“If I knock those down we win the game and this would have been a different story,” said Dunham, who led the Bruins with 24 points. “Maybe if we get a few more rebounds ...”
The Bruins will have a few more days to ponder the ifs. Natomas (18-8) will play Encina on Saturday for the Division 4 title. On Sunday, Riverbank (23-4) will find out where it will have to travel to play its first round NorCal game.
Nabors finished with 16 points for the Bruins, while Porter added 13. Remarkably, against a taller and quicker Natomas team, the Bruins committed only eight turnovers.
No, there wasn’t a lot of blame to go around.
“I got emotional after the game and it wasn’t because we lost,” said coach Jeff Jennings. “I felt for the boys because they’ve done everything they could do from the end of last year to get to this point, and for the third time in a row we come up short right here.”