BASKETBALL: Brothers lead Mustangs to overtime win, head to championship

Third-seeded Tulare Western Mustangs advance to the Division IV valley championship after beating seventh-seeded Washington Union Panthers in overtime

TULARE – Brothers Carmine and Malachi Ficher scored a combined 36 points to lead the Mustangs to an overtime victory over the Panthers, sending their team to the valley championship for the first time since 2007.

The Mustangs beat the Panthers 70-64 in overtime when they faced off in the Division IV semifinal game on Wednesday, Feb. 22. The Panthers put up a buzzer-beating basket to tie the game at the end of the fourth quarter. Leading scorers Carmine and Malachi played a pivotal role in the Mustangs’ victory, scoring a combined eight points during the overtime period. The Panthers four penalties put the pressure on the Mustangs to make their free throws. The Mustangs’ composure under stress earned them their first ticket to the valley championship since 2007.

“This is all on [the players],” Tulare Western head coach Keith Rickard said. “I didn’t have to do much during this game. We prepared them and they went out and did a great job. They could’ve caved there at the end in overtime but they battled through and pulled it out.”

The Ficher brothers both played almost the entire game against the Panthers, usually with Carmine at shooting guard and Malachi at point guard. They were the top scorers for the Mustangs, with Carmine, a senior, scoring 17 points while Malachi, a sophomore, scored 19. Malachi in particular has a tendency to draw penalties. He had 10 free throw opportunities and made eight of them throughout the game. Two key free throws from Malachi helped the Mustangs pull ahead for the win in overtime.

“[The pressure] was definitely there but I just shoot the free throw,” Malachi said. “It’s a simple answer. Just shoot the free throw.”

The Mustangs pulled ahead by two points on their first possession in overtime, but the Panthers quickly answered with a 3-point shot of their own. The teams traded back and forth, then the penalties started. The Panthers committed three penalties in overtime that ultimately cost them the game. They allowed Malachi two free points, Carmine made one of his two throws and finally sophomore Kaine Garcia netted two free points. Senior Carsen Boren missed his two free throws, but the Mustangs were already ahead by six points.

While the Panthers scrambled, the Mustangs remained cool and collected as if they played overtime games in the semifinals of playoffs every day. Part of the team’s success comes down to their chemistry. They’re friends on and off the court and have built a lot of trust in each other. When it comes down to it, each member of the team knows his teammates will be there to pull through and they all want to win it not just for themselves, but each other.

“We’re not the most athletic team,” Rickard said. “We lacked size. We had our ups and downs throughout the year, but it’s about putting together a good string at the right time. It’s just a will to win.”

Behind the Ficher brothers, Boren and Garcia were standouts on the score sheet with 14 and 11 points respectively. Garcia’s talent lies in 3-point shots. He made two during the regular game and one in overtime along with his two free throws. Garcia will be a player to watch in the championship, because when he gets open he rarely misses the basket.

After finishing fourth in the West Yosemite League, the Mustangs are now the only team in the WYL playing for a valley championship. While their last trip to the valley championship was in 2007, the last time they were valley champions was in 2006. The Mustangs will face the number one seed in the Division IV bracket, the Kerman Lions. The Mustangs and the Lions haven’t faced off this season, but it should be a close game. Both teams have averaged 59 points per game this season. The championship game will be at Kerman on Feb. 24.

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