The Prowl

The Student News Site of Weston Ranch High School

The Prowl

The Prowl

Cougars Take Out #2 Branson 56-55 and Head to Another Final Four

The 10th-seeded Weston Ranch Cougars did what needed to be done, securing a 56-55 victory over second-seeded Branson last night at the College of Marin.

Weston Ranch knew they had to be ready to face another top-tier California high school basketball program. The Bulls, 28-3 entering last night’s game, took the floor as the current CIF North Coast Section D3 Champions. They were 11-0 on their home court. They were ranked #25 overall in California, #3 for Division 3, #3 for the North Coast Section, and #1 in the North Coast Section for Division 3 schools. It seemed like a monumental task, but the Cougars were unfazed and did what four other teams couldn’t do, beat the Bulls in the playoffs.

“Branson is one of the best teams in Northern California, so last night was a big win,” said head coach Nicholas Podesta. “We knew they were well-coached, had a terrific culture, and had one of the best backcourts in the entire State.

So, the question before tip-off was how much more could the Cougars give? They played three grueling and emotional Section playoff games in seven days. Their Round One State playoff game was an energy-zapping win that went down to the wire. And last night, they had to make a 2-hour road trip to face another team where they were considered the underdog. It’s a lot to think about, and Podesta asked his Cougars to find another reason to believe in keeping playoff hopes alive.

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“We really challenged our team to step up, and they delivered,” Podesta said. “It was a tremendous team effort collectively. The nine players who all played contributed to the win in their own way, while the bench was about as good as it has been this season.”

One of the Cougars who stepped up was Richard Banks. The SJAA Honorable Mention junior, struggling physically and mentally the past two games, reached deep and came up with one of his best games of the season.

“I haven’t been at my best the last two games,” Banks said. “I needed to take better control of my defense. I get into my head when I overplay, so I thought about returning to good fundamentals.”

Banks led the Cougars in scoring 17 points, including three for three from the 3-point line. His effort was another thing Weston Ranch needed to get the job done. And Banks’s effort certainly made an impact on his coach.

“Richard has been huge for us all season, but especially this postseason,” Podesta noted. “We’ve needed for him to be more aggressive at times this season, and last night, he didn’t have any issues calling his own number and making big plays. Great guards balance facilitating the offense and understanding when to take over a game with their scoring. He has such a great feel for the game and great basketball instincts. When he’s playing loose and free, there aren’t many players better than he is. He’s as talented a player as you’ll find in this area.”

“We’re going to need Richard to stay aggressive this postseason if we’re going to get where we all want to go. I hope he can follow it up with another strong performance on Saturday. He’s been huge for us lately.”

The gameplay was fast and intense. Weston Ranch led 17-12 after the first quarter and 28-26 at halftime. Both teams traded baskets, and neither team had a lead greater than 5 points the entire half.

“We knew it (the first half) was going to be competitive and that we would have to execute our game plan defensively, and we did,” Podesta said. “I was very proud of our group in the first half.”

“Last night, we were very efficient offensively. Shot selection is critical this time of year, and our team understands what good and great looks are. We really emphasize quality shot selection, and I think our efficiency last night was a byproduct of it. Our team is very unselfish, and they share the basketball, which makes taking the right kind of shot easier than it would be otherwise.”

In the third quarter, the Cougars led 36-30 with 5:27 remaining, but Branson got right back into the game with a 6-2 run and trailed 38-36 with 2:26 left to play in the quarter. Weston Ranch responded with a 5-0 run, pushing its lead to seven points at 43-36. The Bulls punched back and cut the lead to 43-40 as the quarter ended.

The fourth quarter was just like the previous three. But, again, both teams pushed the ball up and down the court and exchanged baskets, and neither team could go on any significant run. It was the kind of final quarter that makes playoff basketball so unique and memorable.

Both teams traded baskets the entire quarter, and Weston Ranch led 54-52 with less than a minute to play. Branson came down, nailed a 3-pointer, and took its first lead since the game’s opening minutes at 55-54. After a long drive, four playoff games, and holding the lead for most of the game, the Cougars were down one with 50 seconds left to play. They needed to get something done, and the Weston Ranch fans in attendance waited to see if the Cougars could answer and who would step up.

That guy was Darrion Lilly.

Lilly, who had eight points in the game, had the ball, and the clock was ticking down. Lilly drove to the free throw line, spotted teammate Elijah Mobley under the basket, and dropped a beautiful pass down low to Mobley, who converted the pass into two points and a 56-55 lead. Lilly hasn’t been asked to make huge contributions this year because his teammates garner most of the attention, but that pass was his biggest play of the season.

“Darrion really stepped up for us last night,” Banks said. “Besides that pass, he had some great rebounds, and if he doesn’t sell out and get those, we probably don’t win.”

Mobley’s basket with 47 seconds left to set up the most intense and thrilling final seconds fans of high school basketball could expect. Branson had the ball and trailed by one. However, the Cougars had fouls to give, so Podesta instructed his team to foul to disrupt the Bulls’ offensive flow. Several times the Cougars made deflections, but Branson continued with possession. As the Bulls made their way to the basket, the Cougars found a way to stop them. Finally, after the fouls, deflections, and time-outs, Branson had the ball and took a desperate shot to win it, but the ball hit the side of the backboard, the clock expired, and Weston Ranch won 56-55. The Cougars had to defend a team who matched them basket for basket the entire game for 47 seconds and got the job done.

“The last 47 seconds, it was just defending them everywhere on the floor,” Banks said. “We did everything we could to end that game. We fouled them to slow them down or would knock the ball out of bounds but couldn’t get possession. We just played great defense and closed it out. In the last 47 seconds, we just came together and did what we had to do.”

The 56-55 win sends Weston Ranch to another Final Four and down to Fresno to play the 23-9 and sixth-seeded Panthers of San Joaquin Memorial High School. It’s another game against another great opponent.

“San Joaquin Memorial is a traditional Central Section and State power,” Podesta said. “They’re very talented. Tomorrow night’s environment should be a fun one. The gym is very small, so I’m sure it’ll be packed and loud. An emphasis on communication is going to be critical. Our team has embraced their respective roles on this team, which will be crucial when facing a team as talented as Memorial. It should be a great game.”

The Cougars, now 23-10, will make the long journey and try to find another way to get the job done. Tip-off for tomorrow’s game is scheduled for 7 p.m.




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Cougars Take Out #2 Branson 56-55 and Head to Another Final Four