Aptos High sophomore Isaiah Ackerman and Mariners boys' basketball team lost to Santa Cruz in the SCCAL Tournament championship game on Feb. 11. (Raul Ebio - The Pajaronian file photo)

SCOTTS VALLEY—It was the intense rematch rivalry game basketball fans wanted to witness—Aptos and Santa Cruz battling it out for the league title in what was sure to be an epic finale.

Except, reality often doesn’t meet expectations.

The Cardinals imposed their will upon the Mariners with stifling defense and commanding offense in a 56-33 crushing victory in the Santa Cruz Coast Athletic League Tournament championship at Scotts Valley High School on Feb. 11.

With the win, Santa Cruz captured the outright league title after both teams finished 9-1 and co-champions in league play this season.

“They’ve been talking ever since we lost one game to them, and I think we came out here and showed them what we’re about,” said Santa Cruz senior Aden Cury, a front-runner for the league’s most valuable player award.

Cury, who is averaging a team-high 16.4 points per game, along with Demeke Smith both tallied a game-high 14 points.

After narrowly losing an intense league game against Aptos, the Cardinals came out on Saturday’s matchup firing on all cylinders with their superior size and athleticism on full display.

They had Aptos playing catchup the entire game.

“Last time we walked in thinking we were going to walk all over them and that’s definitely not what happened,” said Santa Cruz acting head coach Robert Shipstead. “I thought today we came out from the tip and made sure we were focused on defense.”

Santa Cruz head coach Lawan Milhouse was in attendance, but unable to coach due to medical reasons.

Aptos had no response early on to the sheer intensity the Cardinals were playing with, and found themselves down 13-0 late in the first quarter.

The Mariners’ first field goal came a little more than two minutes into the second quarter from a dunk by sophomore point guard Isaiah Ackerman in their halfcourt offense.

This gave Aptos fans, who were kept at bay for most of the game, the first reason to get on their feet all night.

“We wanted to play hard against them,” Ackerman said. “They came in with a punch because of what happened last time we played them.”

Santa Cruz dominated from the opening tipoff and the momentum carried over into the second quarter, endeding the first half with a buzzer beater tip back to give them a 32-6 lead at halftime.

Aptos was able to get some shots up early in the second half, but a suffocating Cardinals’ defense was able to smother any momentum before it was able to change the course of the game.

“They took us out of the game from the very beginning,” said Aptos head coach Brian Bowyer. “They were the better team here tonight from the first minute of the game until the last.”

The atmosphere of the game changed with just more than a minute remaining in the third quarter. 

Aptos High senior Trevor Brady attempted a block on Cury and came down head over heels with a terrifying thud.

For several silent minutes, Brady laid on the ground assisted by training staff before mustering the strength to get up and walk to the locker room.

“We’re all worried about him,” Ackerman said. “It was a really big shock. We gave a little prayer and we got back out there and played for him, it’s one of the scariest things I’ve seen playing basketball.”

Brady—who is averaging a team-best 10.3 ppg—was held scoreless up until his fall. He did not return to the game.

Bowyer decided to rotate some of his bench players in the last few minutes, who performed well and inched their way towards a respectable deficit.

Jaxon Becker had two strong inside finishes for Aptos and contributed four points, second only to Ackerman with 13.

“Of course we wanted to win, but I’ve got nothing but positive things to say about them and the effort they brought and how hard they played,” Bowyer said. “It was unbelievable.”

The buzzer finally sounded, leaving Santa Cruz (22-4, 9-1) edging Aptos (18-8, 9-1) 2-1 for the season.

The Cardinals jeered at Mariner fans on their way out, flashing their newly acquired banner, before team handshakes.

With SCCAL play now in the books, both teams now set their sights on Central Coast Section playoffs. The seeding meeting is set for Wednesday and the brackets should be set later that evening.

Aptos will most likely return to the Division III bracket and Santa Cruz has a shot to play in the Open Division, possibly competing against some of the toughest teams in the section such top-ranked Archbishop Mitty—ranked No. 13 in California according to the MaxPreps website.

“We want to go to the Open,” Shipstead said. “I think we can compete, especially if we play defense like that.”

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