For nearly three quarters on Saturday night, Garces showed glimpses of what it can do when running full throttle on the basketball court.
But with just over 3 minutes left in the third, the Rams shifted into overdrive.
Junior point guard Ipreye Egbe had five of his game-high 24 points to spark a 9-0 run to close the quarter and host Garces pulled away from Chavez to capture the Elite Eight Challenge championship with a 61-45 victory.
“The guys performed,” Garces coach Brian Dignan said. “I told the guys, ‘players make plays.’ Our players won this game with their defensive effort and defensive energy, and trusting each other offensively.”
That trust started with Egbe, who had 14 first-half points, including a break-away one-hand slam that gave the Rams (9-4) a 30-26 lead with 2:45 left in the first half.
“Chavez is a really fast-paced team and they play with principles and they were tough, but we just played our game and stuck to what we know,” said Egbe, who made four 3-pointers. “It’s really good (to win the tournament), especially a D-III opponent. They’re one of the better teams in D-III so it was a good win.”
Egbe’s teammate, fellow junior J.J. Uphold, also had a big night. He followed up Egbe’s dunk with a powerful two-hand slam off a broken play and scored on a drive to close out an 8-0 Rams’ run at the end of the first half for a 34-26 lead.
But the Titans’ Adan Arredondo made a 3-pointer at the halftime buzzer to close the gap. He had 14 of his team-high 18 points in the first half. Egbe, Uphold, Arredondo and teammate Fernando Carranza were all named to the all-tournament team.
“We don’t know how to guard Chavez because they’re so good,” Dignan said. “And they’re so quick they can break you down, they get behind you and make layups and they can shoot the 3s.
“So we tried to mix up our defenses and give them something new to look at, and then our guys were fresh at the end by playing some 2-3 zone, which we don’t usually do, then get back to our man-to-man and stay in front and contest them the best we could.”
Garces’ defense pressure picked up in the second half, limiting Chavez (10-5) to only 17 points in the final 16 minutes.
After the Titans closed the gap to 39-38 on a 3-pointer by Carranza with 3.35 to play in the third quarter, Egbe countered with a 3 of his own, Joseph Campbell followed with an inside basket and Uphold scored off a rebound. Egbe’s spin move gave Garces a 48-38 lead with 1:05 left in the third. Carranza finished with 13 points, including three 3-pointers.
“J.J. was tough down low,” Chavez coach Alfonso Hernandez said “He was tough to handle. So that was a huge difference. He and (Egbe) ate us up and went to the rack and we had no answer for them down low.”
The Rams continue to hold their double-digit cushion in the fourth thanks to three baskets by Uphold and another by Xavier Marshall off a nifty pass by Campbell. Uphold finished with 18 points, while Marshall added 10, with two 3-pointers.
“We take full ownership for what happened,” said Hernandez, whose team defeated San Luis Obispo-Mission Prep in the tournament semifinals. “We didn’t come out with the same level of energy, the same kind of energy, so we just have to do a better job of that. Sometimes you have those big games and you take down a Mission Prep, and some form of complacency sets in. And I think that we struggled with that sometimes where we’re not ready for the next game.
“So we just have to be next play ready and be ready to come out and compete. (Garces) is a tough D-III team and we just weren’t ready and they were. They smashed us in the mouth and we didn’t fight back.”
Despite the outcome, both coaches feel they received valuable confidence with their performances this weekend as they head into league play starting Wednesday. Garces opens Southwest Yosemite League play at Frontier, while Chavez will host Shafter in South Sequoia League action.
“(Winning the tournament) was really important,” Dignan said. “We haven’t had a championship for a while for our program, so championship experience … No. 1 is getting there and No. 2 is winning it. So we were talking about getting there, and now we won it.”