By Nick Giannandrea
It certainly wasn't the start College of the Sequoias men's basketball coach Dallas Jensen figured his team would need on the road in a hostile environment during the third round of the Northern California Regional playoffs.
But that just set the stage for a monumental comeback that will long be remember in Giants' athletics lore.
Fifth-seeded COS stormed back from a 21-point halftime deficit to rally past No. 4 Yuba 71-69 on March 7 in Marysville to punch its ticket into the California Community College Athletic Association's Elite Eight state championship tournament.
"I'm really, really proud of our guys and our entire coaching staff," Jensen said. "I thought the resiliency and the composure we showed was really impressive, and just the overall toughness of our group. To come back from 21 down at halftime in maybe the most hostile environment in Northern California against a team that was that talented and with that many shot makers was really impressive."
Readjusted seedings make the Giants (24-6) the No. 4 team from the North and locked into a match-up against South No. 1 Santiago Canyon (28-2) at 5 p.m. March 13 from the Special Events Center at West Hills-Lemoore.
COS is headed to the state's Elite Eight for the second straight season and third time in the past five years. The Giants are seeking the third state title in program history and their first since 1982.
"Getting to the Elite Eight of the state championships at the California community college level is kind of like the holy grail," Jensen said. "Now that we're there, we're excited. We want the boys to enjoy this experience for what it's worth. I'm anxious to go complete and give it our best shot."
The Elite Eight didn't appear likely as COS fell behind by 11 points (17-6) just 9 minutes into the game and by 21 points (44-23) at halftime.
Earlier in the week, Jensen said a key to winning on the road would be avoiding a slow start that would add extra energy to an expected raucous Yuba crowd.
"Going into half, obviously we were discouraged and we talked a lot about what we could tighten up in the second half," Jensen said. "Two points of emphasis for us going in was transition defense and defensive rebounding, and we were really poor in both those areas in the first half. We were taking too many jumps shots in the first half, too. So going back to our strengths, being very solid defensively, controlling the glass on both ends and really impacting the rim, we did a better job in all those areas in the second half.
"We knew there are no 21-point shots in basketball. So we knew it was just going to take doing the right things for an extended period of time, and if we did that, we'd give ourselves a chance."
The Giants opened the second half on a 13-0 run to cut the deficit to 44-36 with 13:08 remaining in the game.
A layup by Ryan Johnson (Hanford High) allowed COS to tie it for the first time since the opening minutes at 56-56 with 6:36 left.
A pair of free throws by Tiyon Martin (Pasadena) gave the Giants a 58-56 lead at the 6:02 mark.
Yuba, however, regained the lead and went up 64-60 on two free throws by Brandon Recek with 3:05 to go.
Johnson made consecutive 3-pointers for a 66-65 COS lead only to have Miles Pennington respond with a basket that put Yuba ahead 67-66 with 44 seconds remaining.
Martin went down and drained a 3-pointer with a 32 seconds left that put the Giants ahead for good at 69-67 with 32 seconds to play.
Carlos Allen (Atlanta) gave COS a 70-69 lead with 10 seconds left, but Yuba's Cornell Greenwood was fouled 2 seconds later and sank both free throws to slice the Giants' lead to 70-69.
An Amil Fields (Hayward) free throw with 4 seconds left gave COS a two point advantage.
Recek's shot at the buzzer to force overtime was off the mark.
"I told our guys that I've been involved in a lot of big-time games as both a player and as a coach, and that might be the most unique and most memorable game I've ever been a part of," Jensen said. "When you factor in what was at stake, the circumstances, the environment, the deficit we were facing, just the whole nine yards, I'm really proud of our group for them sticking together and finding a way to get it done."
The Giants limited Yuba to 25 points in the second half while holding a second straight postseason opponent under 70 points overall. COS beat No. 12 Butte 87-64 during the second round of the NorCal Regionals on Feb. 28.
Johnson led the Giants with 22 points, six rebounds, four assists.
COS post players Tiveon Stroud (Selma) and Elihu Cobb (Santa Maria) also enjoyed monster performances. Stroud delivered 11 points, 10 rebounds, four assists, four blocks and three steals, while Cobb finished with 13 points, 14 rebounds, four assists and four blocks.
The Giants also received 17 points, five assists and three rebounds from Martin, and seven points and six rebounds from Allen.
The rest of the Elite Eight features North No. 3 Santa Rosa (23-7) vs. South No. 2 East Los Angeles (29-1) at 1 p.m.; South No. 4 Riverside (21-9) vs. North No. 1 San Francisco (30-0) at 3 p.m.; and South No. 3 Los Angeles Valley (25-5) vs. North No. 2 Fresno City (27-3) at 7 p.m.
The semifinals are set for 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. March 14, and the state championship is at 3:30 p.m. March 15.
Tickets are priced at $12 for general admission and $8 for college students, faculty and staff with ID, seniors 60 and over, and children younger than 12.
All Elite Eight games, men and women, will be livestreamed at socalcollegesports.com.