But this was the semifinals of the North Coast Section Division II tournament, and the Cougars should have known it was going to be a fight.
Indeed it was … for three quarters. That’s when it all came apart for the Knights in the Newark Memorial gym on Wednesday night.
Newark came back from a 24-19 deficit at halftime and a seven-point deficit (30-23) early in the third quarter to roar away in the fourth quarter and claim a 49-37 victory and a spot in the NCS title game.
The Cougars (25-4) will face second seeded Windsor (26-4), a 56-40 victor over College Park, on Friday at 8 p.m. at Dublin High.
Damien Banford led the way for Newark with 15 points as the Cougars resorted to making a conscious effort to take the ball to the hoop with a power inside game in the second half. The hefty 6-foot-6 sophomore postman carried out that mission.
Guard Casey Norris, the Mission Valley Athletic League MVP, was held to nine points in what was an off shooting night, but Sultan Siddiq came off the bench to provide some key plays and seven points in the second half.
“They (the Knights) came out with a good plan and they shot the ball well,” Newark coach Craig Ashmore said. “Everything was going wrong for us (in the first half). We missed five free throws and three layups there in the second quarter, so I guess we were lucky to be down only five.”
Things got better for the Cougars in third quarter but not right away. When Khirey Carson hit a shot from the right side of the top of the key, Las Lomas (19-10) led 30-23. But a couple of seconds later, Carson was called for a technical foul and the game turned around at that point.
“We are not deep,” Las Lomas coach Jeff Loving said afterward, and that made everything bad that happened to the Knights in the second half that much worse.
“We got a technical, then we got our best player injured, and then our point guard fouled out,” Loving added. “We started the fourth quarter only down two, but we went into it down three starters.”
Beside Tyler Fidelibus who was injured and Max Lober who fouled out, starter/sixth man Adam Wood missed the game because of trouble at school, Loving said.
After the technical, Norris made the two free throws, then Siddiq drove into the lane and fed a wide-open Jalan Rogers under the hoop, and it was 30-27. Then the Knights were called for not advancing the ball past midcourt in 10 seconds, the first of several such violations that would plague Las Lomas from that point.
Seconds later at 3:36 left in the third, Banford made a power move to the hoop for a layup and was fouled for an “and-one.” But on the play, Las Lomas’ Fidelibus was left prone on the floor. Fidelibus, who had led the Knights with 20 points in their quarterfinal victory over Dublin, was eventually helped up by teammates and left the game with what appeared to be a major injury to his left knee.
“We don’t know yet (the extent of the injury), but it didn’t look good,” said Loving, whose team will continue on the Northern California Division II tournament by virtue of reaching the NCS semifinals.
When play resumed, Banford made his free throw to tie it at 30-30 and less than a minute later, Siddiq put the Cougars ahead for good. The junior drove into the lane, made a spin move to the left, and then with his outstretched left hand flipped the ball up and in off the board for a 33-32 lead.
“Sultan is just crafty,” Ashmore said with a smile.
At the 1:47 mark, Las Lomas was called for its seventh foul, putting the Knights in the penalty early in the final half.
Just before the end of the third, Lober, who led Las Lomas with 14 points (all in the first half), fouled out.
The Cougars with their pressing defense forced numerous turnovers and took over the game in the fourth quarter. They scored only 13 points but held the thin Knights to three.
Even though Newark didn’t shoot the lights out, the repeated turnovers, especially the 10-second infractions, gave the Cougars the ball repeatedly, and they also milked the shot clock.
Ashmore attributed the numerous forced turnovers to the players the Knights had lost.
“Their best ballhandler fouled out, so it was a little troubling for them,” said the Newark coach who’s in his 21st season.
For much of the game, the Knights were troubling for Ashmore and the Cougars. But the Cougars found a bridge over that troubled water.