By Thomas Lawrence
Special to Shasta County Sports
STOCKTON — If high school basketball games finished in four minutes, the U-Prep boys squad would be cruising into the Northern California quarterfinals.
No. 9 U-Prep raced to an 11-0 run behind seven points from Tanner Stephens to open its CIF NorCal Division IV playoff against Brookside Christian-Stockton on Tuesday at St. Mary’s High. The Panthers were not just winning, but dominating the Knights with crisp passing in transition, decisive drives to the basket and disciplined defense.
Brookside Christian, though, awakened and rallied past U-Prep 49-43 behind a game-high 24 points from Geronimo De La Rosa. All playoff coverage is presented by Redding Rancheria.
The Knights advance to face No. 1 San Francisco-Stuart Hall in a Thursday quarterfinal while the Panthers are done for the year after winning a second consecutive Northern Section title and third consecutive league championship.
“I didn’t think they were ready to play,” Panthers coach Mark Stephens said of the Knights. “I think they came out and thought they were just going to roll us. We were ready to go, more so than I thought we were going to be, and we took it to them early.”
After that opening streak, Brookside Christian (24-8) played like the two-time defending Sac-Joaquin Section champion it is. De La Rosa hit a nothing-but-net 3-pointer to cap an 8-0 run as U-Prep’s double-digit lead quickly evaporated.
“They picked up the intensity and the pressure and we didn’t respond as well to that as I would’ve hoped,” said Stephens, who’s in his sixth season as Panthers coach. “We stayed in the game and had a chance there at the end. …it just didn’t go (our way). We had a couple calls I thought did not go our way — it didn’t decide the game by any stretch.”
U-Prep led 21-20 at the break and traded punches with Brookside Christian throughout the third quarter. De La Rosa drained a 3 from Steph Curry-territory at the third-quarter buzzer, and the Panthers led by a point entering the fourth.
Aiden Lipman kept U-Prep’s offense afloat in the second half, pouring in 13 of his team-high 15 points, and his layup with a foul cut the deficit to 43-41 with 1:38 to go. De La Rosa assisted a Lawrence Hillery III layup on the other end for the Knights, and again, Lipman scored for U-Prep.
That would be the last basket of the game for the Panthers, as Roy Ictcovichi and De La Rosa both sank a pair of one-and-one free throws in the final minute to seal Brookside Christian’s win.
Trevor Jones added 12 points for U-Prep while Stephens pitched in 11 — all in the first half. U-Prep point guard Kevin Cox had seven steals and center Logan Hawes, who missed the Northern Section finals win over Pierce with an illness, grabbed eight rebounds.
Jones and Hawes are seniors but Cox, Lipman and Stephens are juniors with another year of basketball ahead.
“There’s a ton of pride” in what U-Prep has accomplished, said Mark Stephens, whose Panthers won seven games in the 2016-17 season before beginning their upward trajectory. “Now that we’ve done it, we realize it’s attainable.”
Brookside Christian, meanwhile, is in its swan song as the school is closing after the 2019-20 year.
“I try to keep our main focus on basketball. We can’t afford those small distractions,” Knights coach Luke Williams said. “I mean, it’s not like I’m hiding the elephant in the room. The kids know.”
Before Tuesday, U-Prep (23-9) had won six straight, including the three section playoff games over Paradise, Oroville and Pierce.
“Winning those three down the stretch to go back-to-back,” Stephens said, “was awesome.”
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