By Ray Hamill — The Huskies are going where no other Fortuna boys basketball team has ever gone before.
On Friday night, they’ll play for a North Coast Section title for the first time in the program’s history, after taking care of Saint Mary’s on Wednesday by a score of 76-62 in a pulsating semifinal clash, played out in front of a packed house at Fortuna High.
It’s a fitting reward for this team, which has thrilled North Coast fans all season.
“Oh man, it’s so big,” a delighted and emotional Fortuna head coach Tony Miles said afterwards. “It makes us so proud. We’re such a senior-heavy team and I’m so happy for the boys. They’ve been working hard at basketball since middle school or younger, and it’s nice to see them get rewarded.”
They had to battle for this one, and it took all of their senior savvy to pull out a thrilling win, with all five starters contributing.
None more so than Zac Claus, who stepped up late in the game when his team needed it, scoring 16 of his 21 points in the fourth quarter.
That helped key a late surge for the Huskies, who outscored the visitors by 12 for the period to break open a tight game.
“Zac went on a tear,” Miles said. “We were making sure every pass mattered (in the fourth quarter), and we controlled the pace, and Zac just went off.”
With just one point between the two teams three minutes into the final period, Claus nailed a pair of 3-pointers within a few seconds of each other to suddenly open up a seven-point gap, the Huskies’ biggest since the first half.
The visitors, who never backed down all night, then pulled back within four points, before three consecutive scores, all involving Claus, saw the home team open up a 12-point lead with a little over two minutes remaining in the game.
No way back
The first of the three plays involved a court-long pass from the point guard, who also plays quarterback for the school’s football team, setting up an easy layup for teammate Bradley Willis.
Claus followed that by draining back-to-back 3-pointers, and after that there was no way back for the Panthers.
The win was achieved with a veteran composure from the home team, which had to withstand a remarkable rally from the visitors.
“It was a heck of a game, very energetic,” Miles said.
The Huskies had a dream start, opening up a 15-2 lead less than halfway through the first quarter, and were seemingly on cruise control.
They stretched the gap to as many as 17 points before the visiting Panthers woke up and began to play like the No. 3 seeds they are.
If everything was falling for the Fortuna boys in the first quarter, the opposite was true in the second, as Saint Mary’s quickly battled back to tie things up with three minutes remaining in the half.
“I think we were rushing our shots,” Miles said. “We were just taking shots that we probably shouldn’t have taken.”
The Panthers even opened up a four-point lead late in the half, but a couple of Drew Gillette 3-pointers left the teams deadlocked at 37-37 going into the interval.
Gillette was instrumental in the win, finishing with a game-high 29 points, and matching Claus with five 3s.
The third quarter was nip and tuck, with Donald Willis particularly effective for the home team, driving to the basket time and again with some sensational moves.
He did this twice in the opening minute to grab a four-point lead for his team, and continued to cause problems for the visitors for much of the quarter.
Bradley Willis and Kevin Noel each also had an impact as the home team played a more patient game after the interval, unselfishly waiting for the right shot.
“Overall they played smart and they kept their heads,” Miles said.
Bradley Willis finished with 13 points and Donald Willis with 12.
With the win, their 16th straight, the Huskies improved to 29-1
The victory sets up a section championship showdown between two of the top three Division-IV teams in the state.
No. 1 seed Branson defeated No. 4 Piedmont 57-32 in the other semifinal on Wednesday.
The championship game will be played on Friday night at College of Marin at 7 p.m.