Christian Urrutia / The Advocate
FRESNO — The Comets’ trailblazing run through the Bay Valley Conference and into the postseason came to an end when they lost 100-89 in the NorCal Regional Championship game on Saturday at Fresno City College.
From a distance, a season that saw the most successful Contra Costa College men’s basketball team in three decades claim a BVC championship and a top 10 state ranking throughout most of the season would be winning in its own right.
But this (25-8 overall and 11-1 in the BVC) Comet squad accepts no moral victories.
“Everyone looks at (this season) as a success but we set out to get to the conference championship and into position to win a state championship,” Comet men’s basketball coach Miguel Johnson said. “Not to take anything away from our players, but when you are talented and you work hard you are supposed to win.
“As good as we were we just couldn’t overcome ourselves.”
After making quick work of Cosumnes River College in the second round of the playoffs, and fighting their way back from a 20-point deficit against Feather River College to win in the third round, the Comets displayed resolve usually reserved for perennial playoff contenders.
But on Saturday, from the opening tip, the Comets did more to diminish their own efforts than at any point in the season.
Players missed four shots in the paint to start the game, opportunities that would have changed the complexion of the first half.
“At this point in the season, with only four (NorCal) teams left, everybody is good,” Johnson said. “Everything that we’ve harped on all year gets exposed at this level.”
The Rams’ (28-6 overall and 11-1 in the Central Valley Conference) style of substituting players in waves is one thing to hear about and prepare for, but actually playing a team that rotates five new players every four minutes is difficult to keep up with even for the best conditioned athletes.
“I wasn’t tired. I wanted to be in the game,” Comet forward Larry Wickett (12 points and 13 rebounds) said. “I wish we could have done more to get me the ball, but it doesn’t matter. I’ll do all of the little things, rebounding, loose balls, whatever it takes to win.”
The Rams struck early and often. They raced to a 13-6 lead against the Comets only five minutes into the game.
Back-to-back layups by guard Anthony Sullen (40 points and five rebounds) and a 3-pointer by Dwight Wilson cut the Fresno lead to four with 12 minutes remaining.
“I’m never going to get over (this loss). It was the most painful thing I’ve been through since my dad was in the hospital,” Wilson said. “They had a good team philosophy and stuck to it. From the one to the five spot, everyone was on the same page.”
With CCC cutting into the Ram advantage, another batch of substitutes hit the floor for the home team. This was the first unit for Fresno and it extended the four-point advantage to a 27-17 lead with nine minutes remaining in the half.
In three minutes, Fresno’s 10-point lead ballooned into an 18-point advantage as it carried its lead into the half.
“Some of our guys got caught up in the moment, being down 23 points early,” Johnson said. “Everybody wanted to win on the offensive end but it was more about defensive discipline.”
At halftime, Fresno City led the Comets 63-44.
After the break, Jeremiah Alston found his stroke for the Comets. Alston’s nine points in a row, punctuated by a four-point play in front of the Comet bench, cut the deficit to eight, 73-65, with 11:30 left to play.
This was the shift in momentum that the Comets had been waiting for. After slicing a chunk out of the Fresno lead, CCC set up its full court press in hopes of forcing the opposing ball handlers into a turnover.
Fresno broke the press and the momentum, cutting to the basket for a score.
The Rams subbed a fresh five onto the court and within minutes pushed the lead back to 11. Sullen’s dunk, followed by Rae Jackson’s steal kept the pressure up while the Comet defense blanketed the Ram guards.
Still, every Comet’s miscue translated to points for Fresno. And every attempt to climb back into contention was met with intensity and opportunistic shooting that thwarted any momentum toward a comeback.
By the end of the game, CCC shot 39 percent from the field and 33 percent from behind the 3-point arc. Fresno shot 50 percent from both the 3-point line and the field.
“It’s hard to sleep,” Comet forward DeAndre Russell said. “It was heartbreaker losing one game away from state. But we have to keep our heads up and remember that we are students first.
“We all need to finish school strong and get our degrees.”