Tanner Stephens got his buckets, two sophomores stepped up in place of last-minute illness scratch Logan Hawes and Kevin Cox hit three clutch shots at the top-seeded U-Prep boys basketball team beat No. 2 Pierce 52-44 for the Northern Section Division IV title on Saturday at Shasta College.
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Stephens, who sat with a broken arm last year as the Panthers made a title run – the school’s first, dropped a game-high 17 points, hitting clutch shot after clutch shot, often with two or three defenders surrounding him.
“It felt like he was still getting to the rim, knocking down outside shots for us and it opens up things when you have to pull a big guy away to guard him at 22 feet,” U-Prep coach Mark Stephens said of his son.
Video by Tracy Holmes/Shasta County Sports
Sophomore Kameron Morphew started in place of Hawes – out with the flu – giving U-Prep big minutes in the paint against Pierce’s big-man tandem of Alex High and Luke Voorhees while his fellow sophomore Connor Gilbreath was a monster on the glass, pulling down 11 rebounds and playing well above his years.
Coach Stephens joked that the game-time decision to sit the ill Hawes wasn’t something he’d planned for.
“I’m not sure if we get off the bus,” he joked about knowing ahead of time that he would rely on two sophomores in place of a seasoned veteran. “But between him and Kameron we were good to go. They were a poor-man’s Logan combined and it helped.”
Finally, Cox’s three buckets – one at the end of the first quarter and two in the fourth – were those shots that coaches often talk about a game hinging on.
The second-seeded Bears came out in the opening quarter with intensity, taking a 7-2 early lead as U-Prep was forced to dig into its bench after forward Trevor Jones picked up two fouls in the first three minutes. The Panthers would settle in the quarter’s midway stretch before Pierce opened a 16-10 lead as time wound down in the open period.
With less than five seconds on the clock, the Panthers inbounded the ball and Cox took the pass to the 3-point line and let a three-quarter-court heave fly.
Nothing but net.
“He hits that crazy shot. I’m thinking ‘No way that’s going in,’ ” Stephens said.
And just like that, U-Prep trailed by three and swung the momentum as Pierce players and fans wondered what’d happened.
“I knew as soon as it left my hand,” Cox said of the heave. “We all came in and were hyped in the huddle. Tanner came up and told me ‘That’s what we need to get going.’ It turned our energy around.”
A see-saw second period saw U-Prep take a 26-24 lead into the break as Stephens opened with two missed chip shots, but was able to grab the rebound both times and finally finished on the third try. Owen Lanning then hit a 3-ball and gave U-Prep and 18-16 edge. Stephens would break the third tie of the quarter with a low post bucket at the end of the half.
Gilbreath and Morphew made their presence felt in the third period, grabbing five combined defensive rebounds as Gilbreath also added an offensive snag and putback in the middle of a 9-0 run that saw U-Prep open a 39-30 lead across the end of quarter and start of the fourth.
“He’s a phenomenal player,” Stephens said of Morphew. “We kept him down on JV because he had an injury last year and we were bringing him back slowly and brought him toward the end of league and he played great for us.
“He’s a natural talent.”
The run was also aided by quick shots from Pierce, something Stephens saw when the Bears played Gridley in the semifinals.
“We did a good job of pressuring them and getting them out of their comfort zone,” Stephens said. “They did that against Gridley and it worked to their advantage, but not tonight.
Still, the Bears weren’t going away.
Pierce’s Justin Mathews scored seven straight on a field goal, one of two freebies and a top-of-the key triple and the front end of a one-and-one that cut the U-Prep lead to 42-37 with just 2:49 left.
After High stole a 50/50 inbounds pass at half-court, he converted the deuce and U-Prep led 42-39 before Stephens drove left-side and finished at the run for a 44-39 edge with 90 seconds remaining.
And that’s when Cox seized his second spotlight moment. After Eduardo Paiz drained both ends of the one-and-one, Cox took the inbounds under the Pierce basket, saw a seam and bolted full bore coast-to-coast for a twisting, turning reverse layup and a five-point Panthers’ edge with 1:10 left.
“We talked about how they were starting to press us and the plan was to get the ball to Tanner or Kevin because we wanted to shoot the free throws,” Cox said. “I got the ball and found a lane and thought ‘it might as well be me to score.’
“The post was at half court and I knew there was no way he was going to catch me.”
Daniel Medina answered in the paint on the next Pierce possession, which set the stage for Cox’s final big moment.
As the Panthers sought to run clock, Aiden Lipman drove baseline from in front of the U-Prep bench and as the defense sucked to him, Cox back-filled the left corner as Lipman kicked back to the junior point who spotted up and pured the corner 3-ball.
“Aiden always give that pass out when he drives and I knew it was my moment,” Cox said. “I prepared for it. I caught it low and brought it up and couldn’t ask for anything more. It was a ‘Kobe’ moment.”
And while this is the second straight title for the Panthers, Stephens’ crew is relatively young, with Hawes, Jones and reserve Nate Friesen as the lone seniors.
U-Prep awaits is NorCal seeding, due out Sunday.
No. 1 U-Prep 55, No. 2 Pierce 44
Pierce – 16-8-6-14 – 44
U-Prep – 13-13-11-15 – 52
Bears (25-4) – Mata 2, High 6, Voorhees 7, Mathews 7, Paiz 11, Medina 11.
Panthers (23-8) – Lipman 2, Morphew 2, Lanning 3, Henderson 5, Gilbreath 5, Jones 7, Stephens 17.
3-pointers – PHS – 2: Paiz, Matthews; UP – 6: Jones, Stephens, Henderson, Lanning, Cox (2).
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