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Felix Adamo / The Californian

East guard Deon Butler drives around Eric Parra of Garces in a key match up at the Ram gym.

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Felix Adamo / The Californian

Rashad Jackson of Garces barrels head first into East High's Tevin Beasley as he drives to the basket. No foul was called. Fatain Eke is at left.

Garces was clinging to a three-point lead in perhaps its biggest game of the boys basketball season, and its best two players had just fouled out.

"There was a lot of panic," said senior Tim Pena, one of the players left over. "But we had to step up. We had to play team defense."

The Rams who were left on the court forced two straight East turnovers in the final minute, and Garces held on to beat the Blades, 53-50 at home Wednesday.

"Just another Garces-East game," Rams coach Gino Lacava said. "That's what happens when you play the same team so many times in one year. The games get closer and closer."

The victory was the third for Garces in four meetings between the teams, but East will still win the Southeast Yosemite League outright by beating last-place North on Friday.

Still, this one had a big-game feel from the tip, with stars Rashad Jackson of Garces and Fatai Eke of East trading big plays. Eke, with the Blades trailing most of the night, scored 20 of his 23 points after halftime and added 15 rebounds and three blocks.

Jackson had 14 points and 10 rebounds, but he fouled out with about two minutes remaining and Garces ahead 50-46.

A minute later, the Rams' other star guard, sophomore Sheldon Croney, committed his fifth foul after collecting 11 points, 12 rebounds and six assists.

Without Jackson and Croney, Garces was left to defend Eke and East for a full minute with a three-point lead.

"I turned to (assistant coach Matt) Robles and said, 'Boy, this is a crapshoot right now,'" Lacava said. "But Justin Gapper came up with a wonderful steal, and the kids kind of stepped up."

Eventually, Garces extended the lead to six. Tevin Beasley, who had 18 points, hit a 3-pointer with 3.1 seconds left, but the Rams were able to run out the clock.

"We had to keep calm," said Pena, who led the Rams with 17 points. "When we keep calm and play our game, we're almost unbeatable."

Often, though, the Rams struggled to contain Eke. The 6-foot-8 junior, who already has multiple Division I college offers, took over for long stretches of the second half.

"That big kid, Eke, is so tough in there," Lacava said. "We didn't have an answer for him a lot of the time."

Eke was a non-factor in the first half, though, scoring just three points as Garces jumped to a 16-5 lead. The Rams led 23-18 at halftime.

"At halftime, we talked about how he didn't get that many touches," Blades coach Milt Henderson said. "For us to be successful, he has to get touches. We've talked to him about taking ownership of this team, and he's doing more."

These rivals could meet again in the Central Section Division II playoffs, but where the game might be is of some debate. If it's for the section title, it'll be at Selland Arena in Fresno. If it's before that, the higher seed will host.

East likely will have the SEYL title, but Garces won two non-league meetings and three of four overall. The Rams also have quality non-league wins against Visalia-Redwood and Tulare-Mission Oak.

"I'm biased, but I think we should get the higher seed," Lacava said. "Either way, it's going to come down to us (seeded) 1 and 2 or 2 and 3."

That would be just fine with East, which seems ready for a long postseason run of its own.

"We feel like we've progressed," Henderson said. "The last two times we've played (Garces), we beat them at home and played them tough here. We're counting on seeing those guys again."