The trademark of every Davis High basketball team under Dan Pacheco has been the attention to the fundamentals.
The Spartans always are in proper defensive stances, their plays are run with precision screens and timing, and a major part of every practice is spent shooting free throws.
Davis got two of those three right on Friday, but was betrayed by the inability to connect on that unguarded 15-footer as its season came to an end with a 70-67 loss to Vallejo in the first round of the Sac-Joaquin Section Division 2 basketball tournament.
The Spartans had the ball for the game’s final 24 seconds after two free throws by Vallejo’s Devin Bracy gave the Apaches the three-point cushion. Davis called two time outs during that time, and got the ball to its best player – Brennan Pope – with 10 seconds left.
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But Pope was swarmed on the perimeter and left with neither an open look or a passing lane and had the ball knocked out of his hands 25 feet from the basket as the buzzer sounded on the end of the Davis season.
The Spartans finished 17-10 after capturing their fourth Modesto Metro Conference title in five seasons, a streak broken by a last-place finish only a year earlier. That alone will tell you how far this team matured, and the story of how the final game was lost is just as clear.
After opening by connecting on nine of their first 11 free throws, Davis made only 11 of its next 28, finishing 20 for 39 at the stripe.
“It we make four or five more of those, we win the game,” Pope said. “Coach Pacheco preaches free throws to us, and we shot 12,000 free throws in practice this year. In the end, we still couldn’t knock them down.”
Making free throws in a quiet gym is one thing. Sinking them under postseason pressure is another matter.
“Playoffs bring a different level of intensity, and that’s what it was tonight,” Pacheco said. “Even though it’s still a 15-footer from the foul line, the nerves get a little deeper into your stomach.”
While poor free-throw shooting will be what the Spartans remember about their season-ending game, it would be nice if the players had the chance to watch the game from the stands. It was played at a very high level, especially in the second half when the teams combined for only six turnovers.
And it will be especially memorable for senior guard Nate McGhee, who connected on seven-of-nine 3-point attempts en route to a game-high 25 points. Four of those shots from behind the arc came in the third quarter, which Davis finished on a 20-8 run to take a 53-46 lead into the final eight minutes.
Both teams had to survive quite a bit to make it through three quarters. Pope picked up this third foul with 2:15 left in the first half and played the final eight minutes with four fouls. McGhee picked up his fourth foul with 3:19 left in the third quarter.
Meanwhile, the Apaches had two players foul out and had to find their own way to battle through attrition. They did so by going inside, scoring all but three of their 24-fourth quarter points either inside or at the line.
Still Irvin Russell got inside to score off a pass from Pope to give the Spartans a 67-66 lead with 1:18 remaining. Vallejo quickly got inside to for the answering basket, and was able to take control when Davis missed two free throws with 48.4 seconds left. When Bracy responded by hitting two free throws at the other end, Pope got the ball for the season’s final possession.
“We had a play set up, and it fell through,” he said. “After that I was trying to go at the big man so we could switch it and maybe get a shot up over him. It came down to us not executing the play that was set up for us.”
McGhee finished with 25 points, while Pope added 15. Bracy and fellow guard Evan Austrie had 19 points apiece for Vallejo, which travels to meet top-seeded Folsom in Wednesday’s second round.
“We worked hard, and from where we started to where we ended is the story of a young man growing up, and we grew up as a team,” Pacheco said. “We played hard and aggressive and we just didn’t hit our free throws tonight.”