WATSONVILLE — It was close for a moment. Then Chase Watkins laid down the hammer.
The No. 1-seeded St. Francis Sharks bludgeoned the No. 8-seeded Nueva Mavericks 63-36 on Saturday at home in the quarterfinals of the Central Coast Section Division V playoffs.
The Mavericks (19-5) ran into a five-headed monster in the Sharks (24-2).
Sandor Rene Rodriguez, Dominic Figueroa, Jason Gallo, Ruben Ibarra and junior forward Watkins were all deadly for St. Francis, which is looking to win its first section title since 2010.
St. Francis’s victory sets them up with the No. 5 seed Pinewood, which beat No. 4 seed Eastside Preparatory 45-37.
No. 2 seed Priory won the first game of the day, beating Thomas More, 77-47.
No. 3 seed Stevenson bested No.6 seed Trinity Christian, 87-53, and will face Priory on Wednesday in the semifinals.
It was a tight game early.
Mavericks sophomore Kyle McGraw drained consecutive 3-point shots and senior Henry Phipp added two buckets to give Nueva an early 10-9 lead.
Late in the first quarter, Watkins gobbled up a loose ball around mid-court, loped down the floor and slammed home a windmill dunk with gusto.
“He’s long and athletic. He’s had so many this season. Once he got it at mid-court I knew he was going to dunk it,” St. Francis head coach Ed Kelly said.
The dunk brought the crowd to its feet and had players from Priory guffawing and stomping their feet in appreciation as they watched from the stands.
From then on the Sharks outscored their opponent from San Mateo 49-26 and cruised to victory.
St. Francis senior point guard Sandor Rene Rodriguez dished almost a dozen no-look passes throughout the game and put on a ball-handling display that sent several Maverick players, cross-legged, to the floor.
“Sandor is very good with the ball. He’s really clever. His teammates know if they get their hands up, they’ll get the ball in a position to score,” Kelly said.
Team size was a huge advantage for St. Francis and nobody on the court was bigger than senior center Ruben Ibarra.
The sizable slugger, who’s off to San Jose State on a baseball scholarship, towered over Nueva and grabbed rebounds as a matter of course.
Midway through the third quarter, a Mavericks player ran directly into Ibarra. He was a wall and the Nueva player fell to the court like a sack of hammers.
“Priory is our goal. Once we get to them, it’s going to be a little more even because they got some big guys,” Ibarra said.
Junior forward Jason Gallo scored 17 points and provided the Sharks with another big body with the ability to attack the rim.
For Gallo, the team’s sense of camaraderie and familiarity has been the key to success.
“We’ve known each other a long time. We’ve been together since fifth and sixth-grade travel ball,” Gallo said.
The Sharks weren’t perfect, however.
“We had a lot of turnovers and unforced errors. We’re a lot smarter than that,” Figueroa said.
Despite the turnovers, the Sharks made sure to have fun in the final home game for the team’s seniors.
“It’s a brotherhood,” Rene Rodriguez said. “We just have fun. Practices are amazing and it shows up on the court.”
The gym at St. Francis served as the host for the entirety of the tournament’s quarter-finals. The atmosphere took on a festival-like feeling, but the crowd was heavily for the Sharks.
“We all love playing. Every time we come out here, especially for the last home game of the year in the Shark Tank. It’s a great crowd,” Watkins said.
Watkins led St. Francis with 22 points, Rene Rodriguez poured in 10 points, Figueroa added five points and Ibarra finished with six.
Sophomore E.J. Kelly subbed in for Rene Rodriguez, nailed a 3-point shot and picked off a late Mavericks’ inbound pass which led to a Watkins score. Senior guard Jason Kane added a 3-point shot near the close of the game.
For the Mavericks, McGraw led all scorers with 19 points. Aside from him, Nueva had a hard time penetrating St. Francis’s defense.