Playoff elimination makes Warriors lose focus on Senior Night
Eliminated from playoff contention a night earlier in Hawthorne, the Whittell High boys basketball team didn’t realize the significance of its final game until it was too late Saturday night in Zephyr Cove.
Not even an inspirational start by senior point guard Dusty Apocotos, who was wearing a patch over his damaged left eye, could jump-start the Warriors in a 60-48 defeat to Lovelock.
“In their hearts they wanted to win tonight, but I could tell it was team that had been beaten,” said Whittell coach Steve Maltase. “They have been focused on the playoffs since the first day of practice, but once that was taken away from them, I don’t think they had anything to play for in their minds.”
Senior center James Putnam, who led the Warriors with 14 points, said he and his teammates should have focused on the overriding reason they play game.
“We overlooked what was right in front of us. We were looking at having fun and this is our last game, so let’s go out and do the things we never got to do. But we needed to still look at winning, because that’s something that makes everybody happy,” Putnam said.
Whittell, however, started like it was going to secure plenty of playing time for the reserves. Led by five points from the one-eyed Apocotos and a bucket by Adrian Norman, the Warriors jetted to a 7-0 lead with 4:24 left in the first quarter.
The left-handed Apocotos, who missed the second half of a 57-51 loss to Manogue on Wednesday and all of a 66-53 setback to Hawthorne on Friday from being poked in the eye, wouldn’t let his handicap confine him to the bench on “Senior Night.”
“I felt I had to play because I’m never going to step on that court again or play another sport,” said Apocotos, who said the pirate-like patch was necessary since he was seeing double without it.
“I didn’t even try to talk him into it. I was not surprised by his competitive level, but I was surprised he was able to play. He’s an amazing athlete,” Maltase said.
Despite their slow start, the Mustangs caught fire near the end of the first quarter and took their first lead, 12-11, on Neal Fleck’s three-pointer with two seconds left.
After Dustin Fox sank 3-of-4 foul shots to bring Whittell to within 24-20, the Mustangs reeled off the final 11 points of the second quarter for a 35-20 lead at the break.
Whittell finally awoke from its 16-minute slumber in the third quarter with Lovelock ahead 44-25. Seniors Norman and Bob Linkul ignited the rally with the former providing the defensive work and the latter some unexpected offense. Linkul had four points and a block, while Norman contributed a steal and layup as the Warriors closed to 44-33 after three periods.
“We probably shouldn’t have been playing tonight. It’s hard to get the team all focused, so we can win because people wanted to do different things,” Norman said. “I went into the locker room and told the juniors, ‘We’re not expecting anything from you in this last game, but I’m just going to take whatever you give me. Whatever is in your heart to give me, give it to me now because there’ no other time.'”
Lovelock’s grip on the lead became precarious when the 6-foot-5 Putnam started raining in turnaround jumpers to start the fourth quarter. Putnam scored six straight points to make it 44-39 Lovelock. Putnam’s short turnaround jumper with 3:58 to go brought Whittell closer than it had been since the second quarter at 47-43. But a three-pointer by Michael Nelson and untimely technicals assessed to two Whittell reserves put Lovelock safely ahead.
Lovelock cashed in all four free shots despite the unsportsmanlike efforts of two children who were standing behind the basket.
“We just basically did what we were supposed to do from the start and that’s run our offense and play good defense,” said Maltase about the late comeback.
Apocotos finished with nine points, Avery Norman seven and Linkul six for the Warriors, who finished with 10-14 overall, including a fifth-best Division II record at 5-7. Putnam scored 16 points and Avery Norman 13 in the loss to Hawthorne on Friday.
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