By Ray Hamill — The Tigers held their nerve late in a thrilling showdown between two arch rivals in boys basketball on Saturday night, pulling out a crucial 74-69 win in front of a packed house at McKinleyville High.
With six lead changes in the final six minutes of the game, there was little to separate the two teams, but some clutch shooting down the stretch from both the free-throw line and 3-point range proved to be the difference for the visitors.
The victory, and the nature in which it was achieved, shows just how far this Arcata team has come in a short time, and the Tigers are finally beginning to show signs of consistency under new head coach Dusty Scofield.
“I thought this was the first game where we weathered the storm,” said Scofield, whose team has now won two straight to tip off league play.
They weathered that storm with a near perfect performance from the free-throw line, including going 9-for-9 in the fourth quarter with the game on the line.
Jaden Gorge was instrumental in the win, finishing with a team-high 22 points, including a perfect 12-of-12 performance from the line.
Hunter Santsche and Garrett Hall each also played their part, with back-to-back 3-pointers late in the game to snatch a lead the Tigers would not relinquish the rest of the way.
Hall finished with 14 points, while Santsche had 10, as did teammate Mason Railsback.
“For us as a team, we’re just executing better,” Scofield said. “And defensively we’re connecting better, and we’re just overall playing better as a team.”
In what is traditionally one of the best rivalries here on the North Coast, the two teams didn’t disappoint the large crowd with a hard-fought clash that was back and forth for much of the night.
The Tigers had the better of the early exchanges, and led by as many as 12 early in the second quarter, before Freddie Sundberg kickstarted the home team’s momentum with back-to-back 3-pointers.
A 12-0 Mack run tied the game midway through the second quarter, before the Tigers responded themselves to re-take a seven-point advantage heading into the break.
Once again there was little to separate the teams in the second half, although every time the Panthers pulled close or even, the Tigers always seemed to find a way to respond.
The visitors led by one point heading into the fourth quarter, but it didn’t last, with another Sundberg 3-pointer tying the game a little over two minutes in.
Sundberg then hit his fourth 3 just moments later to finally get the Panthers over the hump and give them a one-point lead.
After that, it was back-and-forth, with AJ Stubbs particularly dangerous for the Panthers inside, on his way to a game-high 24 points.
Mack led by as many as three points with three minutes remaining, but Gorge then stepped up to drain three free throws to tie things up again.
Hall’s 3-pointer with just over a minute remaining gave the visitors a 68-66 lead, and they were able to hold on after that, closing out on a 9-3 run to seal the win.
Isaac Puzz also had a good night for Mack, finishing with 13 points, while Thomas Locatelli had eight points.
Niko Zambas finished with nine points for Arcata.
With the win, the Tigers are now 8-9 on the season, while the Panthers dropped to 0-1 in the Big 5 and 7-7 overall.
McKinleyville plays at Eureka on Tuesday, while Arcata hosts Del Norte on the same night.