STOCKTON — Moments after losing in the first round of the Sac-Joaquin Section playoffs for a third straight year, the Turlock High juniors in 2009 set a lofty and rather ambitious goal.
In 2010, they would play at Arco Arena.
"In the last three years we hadn't won a single game in the playoffs, and the minute we stepped off the court after losing to Sheldon we set the goal of going to Arco," said senior Travis Souza. "So far it's a success."
On Thursday, the Bulldogs will get that NBA arena experience, thanks to a strong 78-68 victory Tuesday against Rodriguez High of Fairfield at the University of the Pacific.
Turlock will play on the Arco floor for the first time since 1993 on Thursday at 5:30 p.m. against Division 1 top-seed Franklin of Elk Grove, which defeated Pleasant Grove late Tuesday on the Spanos Center court.
But the thrill of taking the playoff run to Sacramento was so overwhelming for the Bulldogs, whose yells and screams of "We're going to Arco" could be heard through the locker room doors, that the additional prize — in fact a larger honor — almost went overlooked.
Thanks to winning two games in the section playoffs, Turlock qualified for the NorCal regional playoffs for the first time in school history. So no matter whether they win or lose on Thursday the Bulldogs will get at least one more game next week.
"It's my senior year," said post Eric Wetzel, who had 16 points. "I wanted to play at Arco as a senior and being able to extend my high school career for another week is something I'm pretty happy about."
The first order of business for the Bulldogs was to play Rodriguez as even as possible on the inside. It wouldn't be easy, since the Mustangs were taller and more athletic inside than Turlock, and made a run to this point of the season with that strong inside play.
The Bulldogs not only matched Rodriguez inside, they came close to matching the Mustangs. Rodriguez outscored Turlock 32-22 in the paint, mostly on offensive put-backs, but the Bulldogs got 11 rebounds from Connor Pearson and nine from Souza to actually win the rebounding war 42-37.
With that part of the game even, Turlock went about winning the game simply by shooting better. Souza was only five-for-15 from the field but thanks to an amazing 18-for-19 at the line finished with 30 points.
Rodriguez, to be kind, was the gang that couldn't shoot straight. The Mustangs were one-for-13 from 3-point range and a pitiful 15 for 31 from the line. But then, that was the gist of the scouting report on Rodriguez.
"Our plan going into the game was to get in the zone and scrunch up the middle and make them shoot over it," Souza said. "They made a couple and when they missed they had five guys crashing the boards."
The Mustangs' success in the half court came when they penetrated the top of the Turlock zone at the elbow, and they were good enough doing that to forge a 33-33 halftime tie. But when the Bulldogs switched to a 1-2-2 zone to start the second half, the penetration ended.
"The 1-2-2 pinched that elbow jumper that they were hitting," said Turlock coach Doug Cornfoot. "We had to stop that, and we weren't real concerned with their outside shooting."
The Bulldogs took their first significant lead during an 8-0 run that gave them a 43-35 lead four minutes into the third quarter. Souza hit four free throws during the run after driving hard to the basket — a ploy that worked well for Turlock in the second half.
"We knew they had a lot of shot blockers in there," Souza said. "So I tried to drive hard and keep the ball away to get some contact, and I was getting the calls."
Souza and Wetzel had two more free throws apiece and Souza added a baseline jumper in a 6-0 spurt that gave the Bulldogs a 65-54 lead with 4:02 left in the game. After that it became a battle of free throws, and Turlock wasn't about to miss, finishing 30-for-41 at the line.
Anthony Hubbard had 12 points, while Pearson completed a double-double with 10 points before fouling out of the physical game that saw 47 fouls whistled.
"It was the most physical game we've had all season, but I also think we played our best game of the season by far, and we needed to do that if we wanted to get to Arco," Wetzel said. "That was our goal at the start of the season, and we got it."
Bee staff writer Brian VanderBeek can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2300.