STOCKTON — Carson Simi couldn’t even wait for the buzzer.
Instead, the Rams guard sprinted joyfully back to the bench to celebrate with his teammates as the final seconds ticked away.
Simi was ecstatic because the St. Mary’s boys basketball team had captured the Sac-Joaquin Section Division II championship, topping No. 5 Sacramento-Grant 66-56 on Friday night at Pacific’s Spanos Center.
St. Mary’s (23-8), playing less than three miles from home, celebrated the ninth section championship in program history. It’s also the third since head coach Ken Green took over in 2002.
The other two were 2006 (also a NorCal championship season) and 2011.
“This is definitely my favorite moment from these four years,” said Tom Rigdon, a senior and starting guard, smiling as he watched his teammates hop up-and-down with the blue section championship banner.
“It’s great for my senior year to go out as champions.”
This one was sweet given how frustrating the second half of Tri-City Athletic League play was for No. 2 St. Mary’s. The Rams dropped four of their final six league games, finishing tied for third and clinching a tiebreaker over West.
Green said the Rams lacked offensive chemistry during that time, and once that was rectified, it ignited every element of their game.
Senior forward Tre Jenkins credits St. Mary’s rise to a focus on unselfishness in practice… and a team trip to forward Bryce Johnson’s house. The Rams, Jenkins said, visited Johnson’s house after a one-point loss at the buzzer to West.
“We had a free day, we had no school. …We just talked and bonded,” said Jenkins, also a member of St. Mary’s 2016 section championship football team. “We realized some of the best teams have slumps. We’re going to lose a couple games.”
Now, St. Mary’s awaits its seed, and division, for that matter, in the CIF NorCal playoffs – which are seeded Sunday and begin Wednesday.
A year ago, the Rams advanced to the NorCal Division I semifinals before falling to Palo Alto at Delta College.
St. Mary’s owned the second quarter Friday, outscoring Grant 18-11 and taking a 33-24 lead into half after a 3 from Roberto Chao.
The Pacers (21-10), who upset No. 1 Antelope in the semis, cut the St. Mary’s lead to seven with 1:55 to go in the fourth on Dee juan Pruitt’s free throw.
But that was as close as Grant would come, as both teams struggled to make free throws in the waning moments.
Simi closed the door with two free throws with 1:16 to go, and added one more freebie after an intentional foul on the Pacers.
St. Mary’s had a 10-point lead and the ball with 40 seconds remaining, but Grant opted not to foul. The Rams earned their final points on a putback from Johnson.
Simi poured in a game-high 21 points on 6 of 9 shooting overall, and 2 of 2 shooting from 3-point land. Johnson, a junior forward, posted 19 points and 12 rebounds for a double-double. Sophomore guard Jamar Marshall added 16 points.
“Carson is our best free throw shooter and our best 3-point shooter. That was on display – the 3-point shooting early, the free throws late,” Green said. “He made some key buckets.”
Simi, his four fellow starters and multiple players off the bench were on the court at Spanos Center a year ago when St. Mary’s lost to Roseville-Woodcreek in the section semifinals.
“Experience is a big deal. He was on this court last year,” Green said of Simi, “along with all of his teammates.”
Same court. Same team. New championship banner.
NOTES: Pruitt paced Grant with 18 points and nine rebounds. …St. Mary’s championships before Green came in 1976, 1978, 1981, 1982 and 1989.