MEN’S BASKETBALL: Giants open playoffs with big win

COS’ Mikey Ficher dribbles the ball against Santa Rosa this past Saturday. The Giants defeated Santa Rosa, 77-56, to open the Northern California Regional playoffs.(Norma Foster/COS Athletics)

COS men’s basketball defeats Santa Rosa 77-56 to open the Northern California Regional playoffs; the Giants advance to the NorCal Regional finals to face Redwoods

COS ATHLETICS – Don’t look now, but College of the Sequoias’ men’s basketball team appears to be peaking.

And at an opportune time.

The third-seeded Giants jumped out to a big lead and were never seriously threatened while rolling to a 77-56 victory over No. 14 Santa Rosa on March 2 at Porter Field House in the second round of the Northern California Regional playoffs.

Sequoias has won eight straight games – the fifth-longest active streak in the state – heading into the NorCal Regional finals, where it will host No. 22 Redwoods at 7 p.m. March 9. The winner advances to the California Community College Athletic Association’s state Elite Eight tournament, scheduled for March 15-17 at Mt. San Antonio College in Walnut.

“Perfect time of the year to be playing our best basketball,” Giants coach Dallas Jensen said. “It’s so interesting, right, because we’ve had this one-game-at-a-time approach since the middle of conference play. And I don’t think that changes right now for us, either. We’ll go in and watch Redwoods, and we’re going to continue to work to try to be the best version of ourselves and be prepared for next Saturday.”

Sequoias (24-5) raced out to a 10-0 lead against Santa Rosa (23-7), capped by a pair of free throws from Jose Cuello (Harlem, N.Y.) at the 16-minute, 46-second mark.

The Giants didn’t allow a point through the Bear Cubs’ first seven possessions, a nearly 5-minute stretch before they got on the scoreboard with a pair of free throws by Justin Smith.

“We just prioritize defense over anything,” Cuello said. “We feel like if we play defense and stop the other team from scoring, we’re going to win the game. We try to get that locked in from the jump and take pride in not letting the opponent score.”

Sequoias’ lead ballooned to as much as 21 points twice in the first half, the last (44-21) following a 3-pointer by Mikey Ficher (Tulare Western High) with 4:50 to play before halftime.

Santa Rosa closed the first half on a 12-2 run to cut its deficit to 13 points (46-33) at halftime.

The Giants, however, responded by outscoring the Bear Cubs 14-3 to start the second half, with Cuello’s layup off an assist from Ficher giving his team a 24-point lead (60-36) with 12:39 remaining.

A Cuello jumper gave Sequoias its biggest lead at 28 points (66-38) with 9:29 left.

Santa Rosa would get no closer than 19 points the rest of the way.

“This whole year, and especially the latter part of the season where we’ve kind of hit our stride, defense has been our calling card,” Jensen said. “Defense, rebounding and physicality. It had to have been 4-5 minutes that we held them scoreless to start the game. That just fed into our energy. We started to play a little bit more loose on the offensive end and hit a couple jumpers early. We really controlled the game. That little run they had at the end of the (first) half was a little concerning, but we talked about how important the first 5 minutes of the second half were and man, we played a really complete game. I’m really proud of the guys.”

Cuello, the co-Player of the Year in the Central Valley Conference, finished with a game-leading 31 points to go along with five rebounds and a steal. Cuello made 11 of 19 shots, including 5 of 9 3-point attempts and all four of his free throws.

Jaylon Lee (Las Vegas) helped the Giants enjoy a 44-33 edge on the boards, by grabbing a game-best 11 rebounds. He also had 10 points, two blocks and a steal.

The Giants’ other two big men – Jaden Haire (Hanford West) and Cameron Clark (Gwinnett, Ga.) – also delivered with Haire contributing nine points, six rebounds and an assist, while Clark added eight points, five rebounds, two assists, a block and a steal.

Sequoias also received seven points, six rebounds, eight assists, two steals and a block from Alex Argandar, two points, three rebounds, three assists, and a steal from Omari Nesbit (Sacramento); three points and three rebounds from Davis White; three points, two rebounds, two assists and a steal by Ficher; two points apiece from Samuel Bazunga (Paris, France) and Nati Asfaw (Las Vegas); and an assist from Kion Hayes (Savannah, Ga.).

“We wanted to start from the jump and just show we can play a complete 40 minutes,” Cuello said. “And show we are actually a state title contender team. The hype is not fake. The hype is actually real.

“I feel like we’re starting to reach our peak and it’s fantastic. Everybody is playing their roles. Everybody is dialed in. From the starters to the last man on the bench, everyone is doing their part.”

The Giants will be hosting Redwoods in the playoffs for the third straight season. The Corsairs advanced with an 86-78 win at No. 6 Chabot. They are the lowest remaining seed in the NorCal or Southern California Regionals.

Sequoias won 58-49 last season in a NorCal Regional final and 88-64 in 2022 during the second round of the regionals.

The Giants are aiming for their fifth straight trip to the Elite Eight and their sixth in the past eight championship seasons.

Sequoias seeks the third state championship in school history to add to titles won in 1953 and 1982.

“We’re excited to be in this position again,” said Jensen, whose team is 14-2 at home this season.

Only West Valley (29 games), Yuba (21), San Francisco (11) and San Diego City (nine) have won more consecutive games than Sequoias (eight) heading into the regional finals.

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