Clovis North was billed as the Cinderella of California boys’ basketball, the No. 13 seeded Road Warriors who traveled close to 1,850 miles over four games on their journey to the Division-I state title game Friday.
But when the ball was tipped off against Southern California No. 1 seed Damien, the more apt analogy was David vs. Goliath.
The Spartans were big with junior center Jimmy Oladokun and UC Riverside-bound senior Kaleb Smith each standing at 6 feet, 8 inches tall. There was also 6-foot-4 guard RJ Smith – signed, sealed, and delivered to Colorado – and speedy six-footer Spivey Ward.
It was too much for the Broncos to overcome as they ended a remarkable state playoff run in defeat, 65-57, at the Golden 1 Center in Sacramento. Clovis North (22-12) finished the season as Division-I Northern California regional champions and state runner-ups.
Clovis North head coach Tony Amundsen said the state championship experience, despite falling short, was meaningful to more than just the players.
“I think it means a lot to our coaching staff, our administration, our school, our student body, and then even just the Central Valley,” Amundsen said. “I think it means a lot to everybody there. To get here is a very difficult thing, and as you saw tonight, to win it is a difficult task as well.”
Clovis North appeared overwhelmed by the size and length of its opponent, turning the ball over 18 times and giving up several breakaway layups and dunks. It was a far cry from only four turnovers against St. Ignatius in the NorCal title game Tuesday.
“Some of that is their length and their athleticism, but some of that’s on us… If we cleaned that up, I think we have a shot going down to the end,” Amundsen said.
Damien was in control for three quarters as the athletic guard combo of Smith and Ward attacked the paint at will. Both finished the game scoring in double figures – Smith with 15 points and Word with 17.
Damien led 22-12 after the first quarter, in which the Spartans shot 69% from the field, and 33-22 at halftime. Even with Damien’s leading scorer Kaleb Smith (23 points) in foul trouble late in the second, Clovis North could not slice the lead into single digits.
Even when they were able to in the third – a Christian Calvillo 3-pointer and Connor Amundsen putback shrunk Damien’s lead to 35-27 with 5:30 left – the Spartans countered with an 11-2 run.
Near the end of the third quarter, the Broncos’ deficit was back to 20. Senior Niko Jones drilled a 3-pointer to cut it to 53-36 entering the fourth.
The Broncos did not go away easily. They outscored the Spartans in the final quarter, 21-12, with better ball security and pressure defense leading the way. By the game’s end, Damien committed the same amount of turnovers as Clovis North.
But Friday’s state championship game can be summarized in two more stats; Damien outscored Clovis North in the paint, 44-20, and on fast breaks, 20-12.
In the end, Damien was longer and stronger. The youthful Broncos, who will miss graduating senior Niko Jones but return a large cast of sophomores and juniors next season, will grow wiser from the taste of defeat.
“For the young guys coming back, there’s something to be said about being there and having those moments and going through it and having that experience and you can’t replace that,” Amundsen said. “Depending on what they do with it, that’s going to be very helpful for next year and the year after, and really, for our program.”
One of the sparkling young Broncos, sophomore Connor Amundsen, shined on the state’s biggest stage. He poured in a game-high 25 points Saturday on 10 of 19 shots from the field, grabbed five rebounds, and dished out four assists.
He wasn’t satisfied with the breakout performance, however.
“It was really fun on this run with these guys,” said Connor. “It’s always good to perform well, but the main goal is to win. So we have to keep getting better and come back next year.”