By several accounts, Arroyo Grande High’s “Blue Zoo” student rooting section at James Gym hadn’t been living up to its reputation lately.
Once heralded for its constant chants and intimidating distractions, the Zoo had calmed some but was back in full force for a showdown of unbeaten PAC 7 boys basketball leaders against Atascadero on Wednesday.
And the group tore into Robbie Berwick with an “OVER-RATED” chant when the Greyhounds star had a driving layup blocked as the Eagles led comfortably in the second quarter — as if it wouldn’t rile up the Florida State-bound senior.
It kind of did.
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Berwick scored 27 of his game-high 35 points after the serenade, and Atascadero (13-2, 3-0 PAC 7) quickly turned a nine-point deficit into a double-digit lead and all but cruised to a 78-65 victory over Arroyo Grande (13-6, 3-1 PAC 7).
“Away crowds pump me up and they get me going,” said Berwick, who also grabbed 12 rebounds. “So, my advice to away crowds is don’t chant at me because I’ll get my team going, and I’ll get pumped up, and when I get pumped up, I come to play.”
Though Berwick factored big in the Greyhounds’ decisive run in the second and third quarter, Atascadero was able to cut deeply into the early Eagles lead with him on the bench.
Arroyo Grande jumped out to an 18-9 lead with 1:28 left in the first on a couple of 3-pointers by Cobe Williams and a few driving dishes from Williams to Andrew Midyett and Quillen Smith.
Jared Stuedemann hit a 3-pointer coming out of a timeout for the Greyhounds, sank another shot early in the second quarter, and Taylor Kim gave Atascadero the lead for good at 26-24 on a 3-pointer with three minutes left in the second quarter.
Joe Johnson scored 13 points, and Stuedemann finished with 11 for the Greyhounds.
“We just came out aggressive,” said Williams, who scored a team-high 24 points. “We ran all our sets, and we were getting open looks. And then we just kind of had a lull where we couldn’t get an easy bucket, and they were playing good defense.”
Then Berwick took over. He nailed a deep 3-pointer early in the shot clock on the possession following the overrated chant to help silence the crowd.
And after Atascadero took a 31-26 lead into the break, Berwick opened the third quarter with a steal and an emphatic breakaway dunk. He scored 10 points each in both the second and third quarters as the Greyhounds pushed their lead to 56-39 going into the fourth.
Arroyo Grande’s strong start withered as Johnson played disruptive man-to-man defense on Williams, denying the Eagles guard the easy penetration that set up most of the Arroyo Grande offense in the first quarter.
“When we have a 5 a.m. practice, Joe is in the gym at 4 a.m.,” Berwick said. “He is the hardest worker you’ll ever see. He’ll shut anybody down who steps on the court.”
So, the Eagles had to look elsewhere, and early in the fourth quarter, they did make a run when Carson Wack got hot.
Wack hit three field goals, including one from beyond the arc to go with his two third-quarter 3-pointers, and when the defensive focus shifted Wack’s way, Williams was once again able to find space to operate as Arroyo Grande came back.
Wack finished with 15 points, and Midyett added 14 in a consistent game down low for the Eagles, who got the lead down to single digits in the final three minutes before Atascadero sealed the game at the free-throw line.
With recent victories over PAC 7 powers Righetti and St. Joseph, Arroyo Grande was establishing itself as a team to beat in conference play before the loss. Now, it appears the Greyhounds are the strong favorites to win the PAC 7 crown.
“We didn’t give up in the fourth quarter, which I was kind of proud of,” Williams said. “We cut it to six, which was surprising but cool.
“I still think we can do it. We just have to take care of business. It’s along season. They still have to take care of business. You never know what can happen.”