This was the true definition of a back-and-forth game, thanks to 18 lead changes and three tied scores.
The biggest advantage was a five-point margin.
So no one inside the packed gym could have predicted the ending of Tuesday night’s game between No. 8 Arroyo Grande High and top-seeded Damien of La Verne in the quarterfinals of the CIF-Southern Section Division 3AAA boys basketball playoffs.
First, Arroyo Grande sharp shooter Gunnar Gomez nailed a deep 3-pointer to increase the Eagles’ lead by four, and then junior guard Jared Dizon of visiting Damien was whistled at midcourt for a traveling violation with 18.6 seconds left.
The Eagles then connect ed on five of their final six free throws in an exciting 50-43 win, causing the home fans to jump in celebration with the players.
The Eagles (21-8) made 16 of 21 from the foul line.
“I can’t explain it,” said Arroyo Grande junior guard Matt Willkomm, who finished with 10 points and five assists. “I’m so happy right now. I’m at a loss for words.”
The last time the Eagles reached the semifinals of the division tournament was in 2009, when they lost 44-41 to Santa Margarita.Arroyo Grande will play at fourth-seeded Palm Desert on Friday.
This year’s semifinal run might have been unthinkable on Jan. 4, when Arroyo Grande was slammed in a 25-point loss to Righetti in the PAC 7 opener. Much has changed since then, with the Eagles growing more cohesive after welcoming a number of late additions, who were part of the school’s football team that won a division title for the first time since 1998.
Since that loss, the Eagles have had 14 consecutive wins.
“The Righetti game, way back whenever that was, that team wasn’t nearly as good as this team right now,” said Gomez, who finished tied with a team-high 16 points as did Brent VanderVeen. “Actually, I think that loss put a fire under our butts and we’re going non-stop from there.”
Damien (26-2) was the latest victim despite its No. 1 seed in the playoff bracket. In fact, the Spartans had only three players score in their 10-man rotation. Chris Reyes, a 6-foot-7 center who’s signed with St. Mary’s, had 20 points, two dunks and a handful of monstrous blocks, followed by Dizon’s 10 points and freshman reserve guard Jeremy Hemlsey’s 11 points.
Reyes got his fourth foul with 4:33 left, giving Arroyo Grande more opportunities to create inside.
VanderVeen, who also had 17 rebounds, took advantage of that, as he drove inside the paint and banked a short jumper to give the Eagles the lead for good, 42-41, with under four minutes to play.
Gomez then nailed a deep 3-pointer near the right side with 3:05 left, putting the Eagles in a comfortable 45-41 cushion. Reyes, however, scored another bucket shortly after to cut the lead to 45-43, and the Spartans had the ball with 24 seconds remaining.
But Dizon, Damien’s primary ballhandler, was whistled for traveling.
Arroyo Grande went on to sink five of six free throws, including a pair from senior guard Jackson Zimmerman, who, according to Gomez, was playing with a hurt hand.
The Spartans had the game’s biggest lead, 32-27, early in the third quarter.
But Arroyo Grande prevailed, savoring the victory in a celebration with the home fans.
“It always seems like we can hold it close with our defensive effort,” Arroyo Grande coach Ryan Glanville said. “Like we told the guys, between the third quarter and the fourth quarter, we’re getting great shots. ... It just seemed like we hit some big shots when we needed to.”