In a league rivalry that only seems to grow more competitive with every matchup, Santa Cruz High hosted Aptos High in a game anticipated for players and fans alike.
“This was probably our best game of the year,” said Aptos coach Brian Bowyer shortly after the buzzer sounded following a thrilling 75-72 overtime loss to the Cardinals in Santa Cruz Coast Athletic League action Jan. 12.
From the get go, the Cardinals (13-2, 3-0) utilized their size and athleticism spearheaded by 6-foot-6 senior Ben Dotton, who exploded for 29 points.
“We kind of know what they’re going to do like they know what we’re going to do,” Bowyer said. “We were really trying to take away Dotton tonight and he got going. He’s just such a good player.”
In what has become a normality for the two league powerhouses, the packed stands and audible student sections produced an atmosphere reminiscent of a Central Coast Section playoff game.
Stifling defense and quick offensive transition saw the Cardinals maintain a modest lead throughout most of the game. But it was the little things to end the game that ultimately determined the outcome.
“I’m happy with what we did,” Aptos’ all-league first team standout Isaiah Ackerman said. “I think if we clean up our free throws we’d win that game. We’re boxing out every day after this, they’re not going to get another offensive rebound.”
After missing Aptos’ 66-44 loss against Scotts Valley to start league play, the junior forward has been the driving offensive force of his team.
Ackerman notched 25 points against Santa Cruz including a pair of slam dunks for the Mariners, who played a closely contested first half and trailed by six points, 36-30, going into halftime.
Following the break, Aptos became more aware it would take strategic play calling and shot making to overcome the athletic gap of the Cardinals, who have six players standing at 6-foot-4 or taller.
The Mariners also started piling up the fouls as a consequence of the energetic atmosphere and overcompensation on the defensive end.
“It’s hard because it hurts us on defense and we’re not able to play as hard as we want to, but we’ve got to just play smarter on defense next time,” Ackerman said.
As the game began to enter crunch time with just under five minutes remaining, starting Mariner guard Luke Garvey was called for his fifth and final foul.
Despite the Cardinals controlling the offensive glass, Aptos went on a 7-0 run galvanized by the offensive arsenal of senior guard Johnny Cornejo who finished with 24 points including 16 in the second half.
“It was a good, hard effort,” Cornejo said. “We know what Santa Cruz brings to the table, so we had to all bring it together and we did that great. I’m proud of my team.”
With just a minute remaining, the game manifested into a free throw battle.
After forcing a miss followed by a quick basket on the other end, the Mariners—who have been no stranger to overtime thrillers this season—watched as four more minutes were added to the clock.
Those four minutes would have massive implications for their place in the SCCAL standings.
Aptos already having lost its first league game, the overtime battle may as well have been a contest for the league title.
“Santa Cruz is really good, I don’t know if they’re going to lose another game,” Bowyer said. “We’re just going to take it one game at a time. We’re looking for the playoffs and trying to get as good of a seed as we can and go from there.”
A 3-pointer from Ackerman reduced the Cardinals’ lead to just one with a minute remaining preceded by more free throws from Santa Cruz, which left more than a dozen potential points at the line.
On the inbound after a driving layup from Ackerman, fellow teammate Nick Tovani shocked the building with a quick steal and earned a trip to the foul line where he would make one of two free throw attempts.
From there, Santa Cruz was able to make their free throws and watch the game clock wind down to all zeros. But not without an utterly impressive performance of grit and heart from both teams.
“They’re a good team and I’m proud of how we played,” Ackerman said. “We didn’t let their size affect us, we didn’t come into this game thinking we were going to lose, and we played to our potential.”
Aptos (11-7, 2-2) will host Harbor (11-6, 1-3) in SCCAL play on Tuesday at 7:30pm.