South Tahoe boys basketball ends state tournament drought, opens against Desert Pines in Div. I-A semifinals
Div. I-A State Tournament
Friday, Feb. 26, at Reno High
(1S) Desert Pines (21-8) vs. (2N) South Tahoe (14-15), 4:40 p.m.
(1N) Elko (23-3) vs. (2S) Clark (26-4), 8 p.m.
Saturday, Feb. 27, 8:10 p.m. at Lawlor Events Center
The South Tahoe boys basketball team had its share of ups and downs during the 2015-16 season. Ultimately, the Vikings ended up where they wanted all along — playing for the Div. I-A state championship.
“It’s something all of us have talked about since freshman year and it’s one of the goals we set at the beginning of the season,” senior forward Ethan Strain said. “We just want to put our legacy up on the wall and show that South Tahoe basketball should be respected.”
South Tahoe is back at state for the first time in five seasons, seeking its third state championship. The North second seed Vikings (14-15) face South top seed Desert Pines (Las Vegas) (21-8) in the state semifinals Friday, Feb. 26, at Reno High, two wins away from the ultimate prize.
“It’s unreal. Since the beginning of the season that’s been our goal — get to state, get to state, get to state,” senior guard Blake Blocker said. “Now that we’re here, it’s time to go win it.”
The Vikings expect an uptempo game against Desert Pines when the teams tip off Friday at 4:40 p.m. The Jaguars, ranked eighth in the state by MaxPreps, are making their fourth straight state tournament appearance and coming off a loss in the title game last season.
Junior point guard Capri Uzan paces Desert Pines, a talented team that went undefeated in the Div. I-A Sunrise League and has only two losses against Nevada opposition this season. The Jaguars have five players 6 feet 5 inches or taller, including Nevada commit Trevon Abdullah.
“We’re not satisfied,” Vikings head coach Joby Cefalu said. “We’re not going into this game with Desert Pines thinking we’re glad to be here. We’re going into this game to win this game.”
North top seed Elko (23-3) plays South second seed Clark (Las Vegas) (26-4) in the second state semifinal Friday at 8 p.m. The Div. I-A State championship will be held at 8:10 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 27, at Lawlor Events Center on the campus of the University of Nevada, Reno.
“Holding that trophy would be real nice,” senior guard Denzel Perez said.
The Vikings believe defense is the key to getting two wins this weekend and hanging a banner on the wall inside the Blue Gym. Offensively, South Tahoe will continue to depend on its balance with the guard trio of Perez (12.3 points per game), Blocker (11.5) and junior Harry Moses-Chakmakis (10.3) leading the way for a team that has five players averaging at least seven points.
“It makes it hard for other teams, because they don’t know who is going to have the best game,” senior center Joe Albrecht said. “We have so many people that can put up big points.
South Tahoe enters the state tournament playing its best basketball of the season, coming off three strong performances in the Div. I-A Northern League tournament. Three-point wins over Spring Creek and Lowry punched South Tahoe’s ticket to state, and a 45-43 loss to Elko in the regional title game did nothing to slow its late-season momentum.
“We didn’t want our season to end,” Perez said. “We were fighting for our lives and doing as much as we could to keep playing.”
At times this season, it didn’t seem like South Tahoe would conclude its campaign playing for a state championship. There was the 1-5 start that included four losses at the Gold Dust Tournament, a shocking defeat at Dayton in the second round of league play and a pair of road losses to end the regular season.
“There were times when I thought we weren’t going to win a game all season long, and times when I thought we could beat anybody,” Cefalu said. “The ups and downs have been a whirlwind.”
The Vikings played six of their last eight league contests on the road, and finished 4-4 during that stretch while battling injuries. Two of those wins came in overtime, victories that ultimately allowed South Tahoe to secure the third seed for regionals.
“Our downs brought about our ups — they fired us up more,” Perez said. “We improved in practice every day and now we’re here at state.”
After beating Spring Creek in its playoff opener, the Vikings stepped up their play to down Lowry for the biggest win in Cefalu’s three seasons as head coach. South Tahoe beat the Buckaroos 44-41 in a deliberate, defensive struggle — prior to that victory, the team had a 2-21 record under Cefalu when scoring less than 50 points.
“If we couldn’t control tempo and the way the game was being played, we usually lost,” Cefalu said. “This bunch is the first group that has been able to adjust to whatever style of play is thrown at them.”
South Tahoe knows it faces a challenging task in pursuit of its first state championship since 1992. No matter the results, the Vikings plan to make a habit out of playing in the state’s final four going forward.
“We’re bringing back the tradition,” Perez said. “It feels good knowing that we’re on the rise.”