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Pleasant Grove boys basketball vanquished its history of runner-up finishes with a dominant state title run. By JIM McCUE | Senior Contributor For a...

Pleasant Grove boys basketball vanquished its history of runner-up finishes with a dominant state title run.

By JIM McCUE | Senior Contributor

For a team that has experienced so many seconds, it was particularly rewarding for the Pleasant Grove High boys basketball team to finally experience a number of firsts.

First Northern California Regional Championship. 

First CIF State Championship — for the program and any Sac-Joaquin Section Division I school. 

And even the first time claiming the local spotlight.

After living in the shadow of neighborhood and Delta River League rival Sheldon for years, Pleasant Grove finally eclipsed its counterpart by staring down a pair of Division I prospects in Kentucky-signee Marcus Lee and UNLV-bound Kendall Smith to earn a state title game berth with a 73-60 victory over Deer Valley-Antioch at Sleep Train Arena.

The Eagles followed up their impressive Northern California Regional title win with an equally outstanding performance in slowing down a potent Santa Monica offense to take the state championship hardware back to the neighborhood.

“They never lost focus of the goal despite a couple of setbacks early in the season,” head coach John DePonte said. “They kept coming, kept coming, and we finally broke through.”

The Eagles battled their own adversity in the playoffs before persevering to earn their state title shot. After suffering a pair of competitive losses to Sheldon during the regular season, Pleasant Grove again was matched up with their familiar nemesis in the SJS Div. I final. Despite giving their best effort and playing the Huskies close all game long, the Eagles suffered a 60-57 defeat to be denied the program’s first section title.

But instead of focusing on another runner-up finish, Pleasant Grove set their sights on breaking through in the Div. I Northern Regional playoffs. With Sheldon seeded in the newly-formed Open Division featuring top programs regardless of school size, Pleasant Grove had a Husky-free bracket and a singular focus.

“After the last loss to Sheldon, we knew that they were going to the Open Division,” senior guard Matthew Hayes said. “With Sheldon out of the way, we knew this was our time to shine.”

The Eagles earned the No. 2 seed in the regional field and steamrolled the competition en route to another visit to Sleep Train Arena. Led by its Big Three — seniors Malik Thames, Hayes, and Cole Nordquist — Pleasant Grove rolled through Piedmont Hills 60-36 to earn a rematch with perennial NorCal power De La Salle-Concord.

In the 2012 NorCal playoffs, De La Salle eliminated Pleasant Grove in the quarterfinals with its trademark lockdown defense. This time, with the game on the Eagles’ home court, the tide was turned as Pleasant Grove shredded the Spartans’ defense to record a convincing 68-51 semifinal win and punch its ticket to the regional final.

Thames exploded for a postseason-high 31 points against a De La Salle defense that was holding opposing teams to 38 points per game. Hayes added 13 points as the Eagles nearly eclipsed the 38 points per game average for Spartans’ opponents by halftime. Pleasant Grove led 37-17 at the intermission and never allowed De La Salle to threaten its lead in the second half.

The performance earned a postgame tweet from renown De La Salle coach Frank Allocco: “Season ends with loss to an outstanding Pleasant Grove team that was clicking on all cylinders!”

Still, despite getting that monkey off their backs, the Eagles only earned a NorCal final showdown with the 800-pound gorilla that was Deer Valley. On the strength of Lee and Smith, the Wolverines had accumulated a 26-5 record and North Coast Section championship that included wins over De La Salle and San Leandro. Deer Valley lost a shootout with Sheldon 97-92 in January, but its star power had the majority of observers giving the Wolverines an edge over the Eagles.

Lacking the marquee names and flash, Pleasant Grove was content to concentrate on the basics to fight for its long-sought championship. The Eagles understood they would have to battle the Wolverines’ size on the low post with pure grit — and that determination and fundamentals were their greatest weapons.

“We knew it would come down to heart in the end and that’s what we’re best at,” Nordquist said. “We really just had to dig down.”

Pleasant Grove led throughout the NorCal championship game until Deer Valley countered with a pressing defense that forced numerous turnovers. The Eagles’ 36-27 halftime advantage disappeared with less than a minute remaining in the third when the Wolverines took a brief 47-46 lead before Pleasant Grove carried a one-point advantage into the final eight minutes.

The Eagles opened the final period with an 11-4 run that stretched their lead to 59-54 with 4:02 remaining in the game. From there, Pleasant Grove was a perfect 12-for-12 from the free throw line to hold off Deer Valley and pull away for the unprecedented championship.

“We have been striving to play that perfect game,” DePonte said of the Eagles’ clutch fourth-quarter free throw shooting and making 27-of-28 foul shots in the game. “I think that once we got on a roll, everyone just fed off the success that we had from the line.”

Hayes credited the calmness of the team down the stretch to the guidance that DePonte provided during a break after Deer Valley briefly claimed the lead.

“Coach told us to keep our emotions low and keep attacking their press,” Hayes said. “He just told us to keep our cool.”

That coolness vaulted Pleasant Grove to the regional title and made the Eagles the hottest SJS squad as well as the last one standing. With losses by the other four SJS schools in NorCal finals, the Eagles were the lone section representative to play for a state title.

In the third trip to Sleep Train Arena in a month, Pleasant Grove had a true home-court advantage over visiting SoCal Div.-I champ Santa Monica. The familiarity of their surroundings and a student body cheering section dubbed “The Flock” gave the Eagles extra confidence that they rode to the historic state championship.

Duplicating the previous week’s effort of neutralizing the opponent’s top offensive threat, the Eagles focused on slowing Cal-recruit Jordan Mathews. Pleasant Grove forced the Vikings’ star to exert himself at both ends of the floor against the Eagles’ typical aggressive style of offense and defense.

“We wanted to attack him and make him play defense and get his legs tired, and hopefully draw some fouls on him as well,” DePonte said of the game plan for Mathews. “We wanted to make him play both sides of the ball and keep him off-balance.”

The plan worked to perfection when Mathews fouled out early in the fourth quarter after scoring just two points in the second half. Without Santa Monica’s top threat on the floor, Pleasant Grove was able to focus on maintaining a double-digit lead until the final horn sounded.

The Eagles had some flaws in the state final, including sophomore center Marquese Chriss getting into his own foul trouble and a subpar shooting night from the free throw line. Role players like Thomas Fitzgerald, who scored six points and grabbed eight rebounds while filling in for Chriss, stepped up as the team found a way to win.

“We never quit playing, and never quit playing together,” Nordquist said.

The Big Three not only led the Eagles’ on the court, but commanded respect and navigated their squad through the ups and downs of the season as true leaders. The trio was each three-year varsity players who earned that respect of teammates as well as coaches to be true extensions of the staff both on and off the court.

“We have grown together,” Nordquist said of the Eagles’ senior trio. “Every year we got better, and this was our year to shine.”

After the final runner-up finish to Sheldon in the SJS final, the veteran trio embodied the Eagles’ never-say-die attitude that led to the team’s  historic run to the ultimate first-place finish.

“Getting this is a reflection of all of the hard work, and I’m glad that with all the hard work it finally paid off and we were finally able to break through,” DePonte said. “It was a life-teaching situation about perseverance. 

“They kept believing and they kept the faith, and it’s just great for these guys to break through.”  J

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