All good things must eventually come to an end, and so it was with the Sweetwater High School boys basketball team's undefeated season.
The top-seeded Red Devils carried an unblemished 28-0 record into Friday's San Diego Section Division III championship game against the second-seeded Kearny Komets at the University of San Diego's Jenny Craig Pavilion. While Sweetwater led by as much as six points midway through the second quarter and held a 32-31 halftime advantage, the second half of the game clearly belonged to the Komets, who snatched a 73-58 come-from-behind victory.
SuHi coach Jesse Aguirre and his team were obviously disappointed by the untimely setback that relegated the reigning Metro-Pacific League champions to a road game in the upcoming Southern California regional playoffs.
“I thought we missed a lot of points,” Aguirre said with candor after the title game loss. “We missed too many free-throws and lay-ups. They were bigger than us and more athletic. Kearny was the better team tonight. I give them credit, it wasn't our game. But hey, 28-1, nobody would have expected that at the beginning of the season. We had a hell of a year.”
And so they did, this National City bunch that was striving to claim the school's first section title since 1990.
It's been a long wait, and the Devils will have to wait a while longer to cut the net from the rim for another championship keepsake.
The championship-round combatants had combined for a 52-2 record during the regular season and three playoff rounds but had not met on the court in 2013-14. Hairs were split in determining which team would receive the No. 1 seed in the division and the early moments of the game favored neither team in front of a vocal gathering of fans from both high schools..
The match-up of division giants opened on a defensive note as neither team could find the range in the first 45 seconds. But that quickly changed as the teams exchanged rapid-fire buckets.
Raven Middleton sank the first points for the top-seeded Devils to tie the score 2-2 and teammate C.J. Cadua later hit one of two free-throws to give Sweetwater an early 3-2 lead.
A steal and lay-in by Cadua put undefeated Devils on top again, 8-7, with 4:04 left in the quarter. A fade-away shot by Spencer Mattox, the school's all-time scoring leader, and an ensuing foul shot lifted the Devils to an 11-8 edge.
Mattox was again at the line to hand the National City team a 12-10 lead. But a steal and bucket by the Komets (25-2) narrowed the SuHi lead to 14-12 and, after another Komet shot found range, the game was tied 14-14 with 48 seconds to play in the opening quarter.
But the Devils' persistence paid off. Cadua went end-to-end after Sweetwater won a rebound to put his team ahead 16-14 with 25 seconds left in the quarter and Oscar Picazo dropped in a three-point bomb from the edge of the court just before the buzzer to put the Devils ahead 18-14 after the opening eight minutes.
Sweetwater would extend its lead to 22-17 early in the second quarter before the Komets stormed back to lead, 23-22, with 4:41 to play before halftime. But a trey by SuHi's Alvin Imperial and a key put-back by Imperial quickly gave the Devils back the lead at 27-23 with 3:33 left in the quarter.
Free-throws by Mattox and Picazo extended the Sweetwater lead to 29-23 but the Komets quickly came back with a charge to take a 31-30 lead with 24.5 seconds left in the first half.
But the ball went back into the Devils' possession on the in-bounds play and the NC team played for the last shot of the half, with Middleton scoring on a lay-in under the hoop on a perfect seeing-eye pass from a teammate to push Sweetwater to a narrow one-point halftime edge.
The Red Devils appeared to be holding their own against a taller and speedy Kearny team, but the tide quickly turned when the teams returned to the court for second-half action.
Everything seemed to go Kearny's way to open the second half as the Komets (25-2) reversed the score to lead 39-33 with 3:36 elapsed in the third quarter
Middleton sank a free-throw to trim the Komet lead to 39-34 with 5:07 remaining in the quarter but uncharacteristic poor shooting from the field and defensive breakdowns continued to plague the Devils all through the second half of play.
Forward David Moa put Kearny up 41-34 before Middleton responded with a deuce to return the deficit to five points, 41-36.
Play was fast and furious after that. Kearny's Xavier Browne scored on a defensive steal to enlarge the Devils' deficit to seven points and it stood there after Moa sank a pair of shots from the charity stripe to give the Komets a 45-38 advantage on the scoreboard.
But Sweetwater was not finished. The Devils narrowed the score to 45-40 with 1:31 remaining in the quarter. But Kearny quickly regained the momentum to extend its lead to eight points at 50-42.
A three-pointer by Picazo drained the Komets lead to 50-45 with 30 seconds to play in the quarter but a scoop shot by Kearny's Wilton Guillory upped Kearny's lead to 52-45 with two seconds left in the quarter.
A jam by the Komets' Austin Knox had the house roaring with 6:53 to go in the game, pushing Kearny to its biggest lead of the contest at 56-47.
But a clutch bucket by Picazo 30 seconds later brought the Devils back into the game at 56-49. A fall-away jumper by Mattox made the score 56-51 with 5:50 remaining.
Still plenty of time for a Red Devil comeback.
But Jeremiah Jorden of the Komets scored on a lay-in with 5:20 to play to increase the Kearny lead to six points at 58-52.
Browne went down in front of the SuHi basket with 5:13 left in the game and was carried off the court (he returned later to the bench with his shoulder iced down). That only seemed to fire up the Komets as Knox slammed home two more points to elicit another roar from the crowd.
Time then became the Devils' main adversary.
A bucket by Mattox narrowed the score to 62-54 with 4:30 to play but the Komets went back to the free-throw line to add another valuable point to the scoreboard.
Moa went airborne seconds later on an in-bounds play to increase Kearny's lead to 65-54 with 4:05 remaining in the game.
Jorden added two more points to make the score 67-54 with 3:40 to play, and at that point, things didn't look very promising for Sweetwater.
Mattox hit for two to cut the Komet lead to 67-56 with 3:20 to play. But poor shooting, especially from the charity stripe, and missed rebounds began to take their toll.
Takoda Browne went in for an easy lay-in to hike the Komet lead to 69-56, and it appeared the Devils had finally met their match.
Rashad Russell went in for an uncontested lay-in with 2:13 left: 71-56 Kearny.
It was exciting until the game began to unravel for the Metro-Pacific champs at the end.
Kearny's Takoda Browne fouled out with his fifth personal foul with 1:26 to play but by then the damage had been done. Komet fans began chanting “C-I-F! C-I-F!”
The “goodbye” song quickly followed as the City Central League champs collected their 19th consecutive win and first section title since 1979.
As inspirational as was Sweetwater's 28-0 start, just as inspirational was the Kearny win. Komets players had dedicated their season to the memory of former teammate Richi Knight, who was murdered less than a year ago.
They made good on their vow. Six-foot-four Moa called Knight "a brother."
Moa and Mattox tied for high scoring honors in the game with 19 points each (a career high for Moa). But the Komets simply had more firepower. Eight players scored in the game for Kearny, including four who reached double-digits. Seven players scored for Sweetwater, with just two players scoring in double figures.
Knox had 16 points for the Komets, while Takoda Browne chipped in with 11 points and Xavier Browne contributed 10 points.
Middleton had 12 points for the Devils while Cadua, the team's spark-plug all season long, finished with nine points.
“C.J. was off his game tonight,” Aguirre said.
Sweetwater hit just 16 of 32 free-throw attempts while Kearny shooters missed just six foul shots. But the Komets' decisive edge in the game came in rebounding, where Kearny's athleticism was put on display.
Kearny won the rebounding battle by a lop-sided 54-29 edge (31-14 in defensive boards).
Mattox also turned in team bests with two blocks and six steals.
Rounding out Sweetwater's scoring were Picazo (eight points), Alvin Imperial (five points), Raymond Dibella (four points) and Marco Rivera (one point).
Pairings for the regional playoffs will be announced later this weekend. As section champs, Kearny is expected to receive a home game in the first round.
The Komets' championship victory over the Devils continued the trend of lower-seeded teams reaping post-season success.
Section commissioner Jerry Schniepp said he likes the revamped playoff format that has striven to match teams by competition level rather than enrollment level.
“I like it a lot,” he said. “It's opened up some things. We had a good cross-section participation. I think it's been positive. Some people might say we did a poor job seeding but you can't predict these things.”
Sweetwater received the No. 13 seed in the 16-team Division III regional draw and will play at No. 4-seeded Brea Olinda (23-10) in Wednesday's opening round. The winner advances to Saturday's quarterfinals. Semifinal-round games are scheduled Tuesday, March 18, followed by the SoCal championship game on Saturday, March 22. The state final is Friday, March 28 in Sacramento.
Chaminade (22-0) received the No. 1 seed in the SoCal regionals.