Maybe it was the pressure of beating a defending section champion — not to mention state finalist and archrival — to end the regular season on a winning streak entering the CIF Sac-Joaquin Section Division I playoffs.
Maybe the gym was too hot, or maybe it was the pressure of playing in front of their guest coach, Tracy Unified School District Superintendent Jim Franco.
Or maybe it was the sports gods trying to even a debt from football season.
Whatever it was, the West High boys basketball team opened their Tri-City Athletic League finale against St. Mary’s on a cold streak, missing their first four shots and hitting only four field goals opening quarter, while the potent Rams offense rolled to a 21-9 lead after a quarter and a 71-54 win on Friday’s Senior Night in front of the biggest — and rowdiest — Den crowd of the year.
“That’s a very good team,” West coach Steve Thornton said. “We won’t play a better one than them or (TCAL champion) Edison.”
“When we shoot the ball well, we’re competitive,” he added. “When we don’t, like in the first quarter, it hurts us.”
Twice, the Wolf Pack (5-5 TCAL, 17-10 overall) were able to slim the lead, coming to within four points with four minutes to play in the second and within eight points late in the fourth following a Kris Beck 3-pointer. But the Rams responded in kind both times, reeling off a 17-4 run the first time and a 10-0 run the second to keep the margin of victory in double figures.
“In the first half, we struggled from the outside,” senior forward Justin Phillips said. “We tried to turn it on the second half, but by that point it was too late.”
The Rams’ Patrick Jemerigbe led all scorers with 29 points, and teammate Nick Copriviza added 13. Beck led West with 12 points, while Phillips and Christophe Chaubard both added nine. Aaron Gori chipped in with eight.
The Rams also enjoyed a long and successful night of free throws, shooting 15-for-21 as a team, while the Wolf Pack made only four trips to the line — one of which came after a third quarter technical — en route to a 4-for-7 performance.
“We understand West plays really hard, especially in this building,” St. Mary’s coach Ken Green said. “It’s a very difficult place to play … there were a lot of things going on out there at times.”
The Rams led by a game-high 17 points before Beck hit a last-minute third-quarter 3, and Phillips followed it up with a buzzer-beating 3 — after a first missed attempt that he rebounded himself.
The loss puts West on a two-game slide and drops them to .500 in league on the year. But there’s one more game — on Sunday, the Wolf Pack will discover where they’ll travel Friday to open the playoffs.
“We’ve got to build on this and get ready for the playoffs, because that’s what counts,” Phillips said. “We’ve got to take this as a learning experience and get ready for next week.”