Fasten your seat belts, a thrilling race for the Big 5 championship in boys basketball is showing no signs of slowing down.
The top three contenders put some distance between them and the chasing pack in the standings on Thursday night and the championship looks set to go down to the final night of action on Feb. 4.
The Del Norte Warriors took over sole possession of top spot with a hard-fought 44-40 win at Eureka High and is now 4-1 in the Big 5.
The McKinleyville Panthers also won on Thursday, defeating Fortuna 71-51 at Mack High to go to 3-1 in the standings with a game in hand.
The Arcata boys are also 3-1 with a game in hand and had a bye on Thursday night.
All three are 1-1 against each other — Mack defeated Arcata, which defeated Del Norte, which defeated Mack — and all three will meet each other again over the next two weeks, including matchups for Del Norte at home to Arcata and at McKinleyville on the final two nights of league play.
Del Norte 44, Eureka 40
The Warriors were far from sharp on offense, but their defense made up for it in an exciting battle at Eureka.
The home team got the better of the early exchanges and led by as many as nine on a couple of occasions in the first half, before taking a 27-22 lead into halftime.
But the Warriors battled back after the break and outscored Eureka 11-5 in the third quarter to take the lead.
The game would go down to the wire, however, and was deadlocked going into the final 90 seconds.
Edwin Zepeda, who scored a team-high 13 points, gave the Warriors a three-point cushion with a two-point basket with just 25 seconds on the clock and the Warriors were able to hold on after that.
Nani Scott and Adriel Horton each finished with nine points and teammate Wyatt Robson chipped in seven, as the Warriors continued their recent dominance over the Loggers and improved to 13-4.
But it was the team’s defense that paved the way to victory once again, most notably in holding Eureka’s Caden Vance to five points just two nights after he exploded for 30 against St. Bernard’s.
Hans Chalmers scored a game-high 16 points for the Loggers, who dropped to 1-3 in the Big 5 and 7-11 overall.
Eureka’s Jordan Urban and Evan Hodges each scored seven.
McKinleyville 71, Fortuna 51
The Panthers are finding their offensive groove at an opportune time.
On Thursday, they turned in their best offensive performance of the season on the way to beating the Huskies by 20 points.
“I really think it was our best offensive outing of the season,” McKinleyville head coach Cindy Semore Clancy said. “I felt like we’re running our offense, reading the defense and distributing the ball well, all the things you hope you’re doing at this stage of the season.”
The Panthers got plenty of balance in scoring, including four players who finished in double digits.
Connor Alto and Owen Hamm each scored a team-high 14 points in the win, while Jordan Brown finished with 13 points and Jack Clancy 12.
Alto was particularly instrumental in the win and “demonstrated some leadership,” according to the coach.
“He did a good job reading the defense and getting open,” Semore Clancy said.
Brown also had a big night and continued to showcase his stellar defensive talents while holding Fortuna standout Alfonso Medinas to seven points.
Fortuna’s Jordin Bourne had a career night in the loss and finished with a game-high 28 points, including a remarkable eight 3-pointers.
“He was on fire,” Semore Clancy said of the Huskies senior guard. “He was killing us with his 3s. He shot really well for them.”
Teammate Russell Pascascio chipped in 10 points, as the Huskies fell to 0-5 in the Big 5 and 8-14 overall.
Carson Parker and Logan Maher each also finished with six points for Mack, which improved to 11-5 overall.