APTOS— The Aptos High boys’ basketball team hosted Santa Cruz High on Friday for its most anticipated game of the season.
Both teams have been fierce Santa Cruz Coast Athletic League rivals for years, which seems to become more accentuated with every game played.
That meant the margin of error was razor thin.
In a tremendous back and forth effort, the Mariners were able to muster a 36-33 victory over the Cardinals in front of a raucous crowd that overflowed the stands and brought an energy that seemed to give the home team an edge in 50-50 situations.
“The crowd was a big part of it,” said senior Trevor Brady. “It was senior night which helped us a lot, we were missing a couple guys due to illness.”
Despite going into the game with three of their starters (Harrison Bloom, Tosh Woods, and Kevin Hamlyn) out with illness, the Mariners still managed to overcome the top ranked team in Monterey Bay and No. 6 in the Central Coast Section according to the Max Preps website.
Friday night’s matchup was the lowest scoring game of the year for Santa Cruz and tied the second lowest for Aptos.
The Cardinals (18-4, 7-1) came into the game as the lone undefeated team in SCCAL play, while Aptos (15-7, 7-1) was looking up at Goliath despite sitting just behind in second place.
“We executed down the end, it was just such a tight game,” said Aptos head coach Brian Bowyer. “It came down to the last couple of possessions. Somehow we did it, I don’t know how.”
This win for Aptos had major playoff implications, as it tied them at 7-1 in the league standings with Santa Cruz.
It also snapped the Cardinals’ 15-game winning streak, while the Mariners extended their streak to five consecutive wins.
Santa Cruz was able to assertively defeat Aptos 44-36 on its home court in their previous matchup on Jan. 10.
On Friday, defensive intensity won the game for the Mariners as they were able to contain players like Aden Cury, who is averaging more than 17 points per game and is one of the leading frontrunners for league MVP.
“The only way we were going to win this game was to keep the score down low,” Bowyer said. “I don’t feel like we would be able to outscore them in a high scoring game.”
Brady was able to lead by example with a team high nine points.
Santa Cruz in its own right played excellent defense as well, making several key turnovers down the stretch and allowing Aptos to close its biggest lead of the game at seven points.
“Their defense was awesome, they played great,” said Santa Cruz head coach Lawan Milhouse. “They had a great game plan for us and we made a lot of bad decisions.”
One of the key contributors for Aptos in the final minutes was Lawrence Ingram.
He delivered under pressure with a string of free throws down the stretch to keep them in the game as well as the intensity he brought.
“[Ingram] probably had the best game of anyone,” said Mariner senior Hudson Garvey. “I’m still in shock. Probably the biggest game I’ve ever played in my life.”
As the game progressed and the intensity was heightened by a barrage of Santa Cruz points, Cardinal Ben Dotten shoved a Mariner player to the ground during a struggle for the ball and was ejected from the game with just more than six minutes remaining in the game.
There was a strong security presence due to the hostility of previous meetings.
This was a pivotal moment in the game, as it galvanized the Mariners and left Santa Cruz without one of their most impactful players.
“We were up seven with the momentum and he went and did a bonehead play, then they hit two free throws and a 3-pointer,” Milhouse said.
Both teams struggled to make shots and it was especially tough in the first half.
Santa Cruz didn’t make a single three point shot attempt in the first two quarters and struggled from the free-throw line throughout the game.
Aptos managed to knock down several pivotal shots in crunch time, including a big 3-pointer by Garvey with several minutes remaining.
“Going into this we knew it was going to be a defensive battle,” Brady said. “We weren’t worried about us missing shots, we knew we’d get it down the stretch.”
To end the game, Santa Cruz found themselves trailing by three points with five seconds left.
Aden Cury managed to get a deep shot off, but it was way off as the Cardinals watched the Mariner student section storm the court in celebration.
Santa Cruz’ players and coaches alike looked up in disbelief at the scoreboard.
“We’ve got to play better than we did today,” Milhouse said. “By three points.”
The season series is split and all that’s left is a possible SCCAL playoff game between the two powerhouses of the league, which would be a fitting finale for an amazing rivalry.
Bowyer believes Santa Cruz will win out its remaining schedule starting with Soquel on Jan. 31 and Harbor on Feb. 3. Both games are slated to tip off at 7:30pm.
Aptos will travel to San Lorenzo Valley (2-15, 0-8) and Scotts Valley (11-11, 4-4) to finish the regular season. Bowyer said winning Friday night’s game means nothing if they don’t win the next two in order to have at least a share of the SCCAL crown.
“This makes us prepare even harder for the next two games,” he said. “This was an unbelievable win for us, we can’t throw this away.”