With one team's leading scorer plastered to the bench, the other team's star became a little brighter on Friday night.
Fatai Eke scored 12 of his 23 points in the fourth quarter to lift host East to a 59-57 victory over Garces, giving the Blades a firm grip on the Southeast Yosemite League race and showcasing Eke's considerable skills.
"It's not really natural for me to be aggressive and take over a game; I have to have a fire lit under me," Eke said. "One of our coaches took me aside after the third quarter and said, 'You have to show you're elite, that you're a star player. And this is the game to do it.'"
Eke, a 6-foot-6 junior who already has offers from four Division I colleges, has always been a presence in the paint, a shot-blocker, a rebounder and a highlight-reel dunker.
But Friday, he showed his game includes off-the-dribble moves and nice touch in the paint. Eight of his 12 fourth-quarter points were of that variety, including a slick turn-around jumper that put East up 59-55 with two minutes to play.
"We've been stressing it to him that we have a lot of new guys on varsity and he has to be the guy to take over the game," East coach Milt Henderson said. "We've played a lot of close games without having that guy, but tonight, Fatai really carried us down the stretch."
Still, the Blades (14-10, 4-0 SEYL) had to hold off Garces (12-8, 2-2) down the stretch, even though the Rams' leading scorer, Rashad Jackson, didn't play in the fourth quarter.
Sheldon Croney took over instead, barrelling again and again into the paint and either trying to score over Eke or dishing out to one of the Rams' shooters.
But Croney missed four free throws in the fourth quarter, and the Rams' only late points came when he tipped in one of his one misses.
In the final seconds, Matt Layton and Croney both missed 3-pointer that could have won the game for Garces.
"It scared the life out of me," Eke said. "Man, oh man."
Garces assistant coach Matt Robles said he was comfortable with the lineup he had on the floor; he said Jackson wasn't injured or sick.
"We put the best group we had on the floor at the end of the game," Robles said. "Those guys were hustling, getting shots, getting looks. We had the group we wanted out there."
Jackson had scored 14 points through the first three quarters to lead the Rams; Croney finished with 13 points and four rebounds after missing the Rams' past two games with illness. He carried Garces' offense late but finished just 1 of 7 from the free-throw line.
"Hopefully we'll make a couple more free throws next time," Robles said. "But you know what? We live, we learn and we stick with it."
The result, this time, is that East maintains a one-game lead over Tehachapi in the SEYL; the Blades beat the Warriors 64-40 last week at home and suddenly look like a league and Division II section title contender after losing twice to Garces early in the season.
"The main thing is our confidence," Henderson said. "We figure we've done a lot of growing, and we figured this was our measuring stick. Guys have learned their roles."
David Lee scored 13 points for East, and Miguel Martinez had 11.
"Garces is one of the better teams in town, and we figure if we can beat them we can do really well," Eke said.