Fresno-Saturday night, February 26th, the #1 seed Clovis West Golden Eagles hosted the #2 seed St. Joseph Knights in the Central Section Open Division Championship Game. The Golden Eagles entered the game with a record of 29-1, winners of the TRAC league, and earned a third consecutive trip to the Open Division Playoffs. The Knights came in with an impressive record of their own, 27-2, winners of the Central Coast Mountain League, and looking to repeat as Open Division Champions, as they defeated San Joaquin Memorial Panthers to capture their 1st Open Championship last season. As of last Monday, February 21st, CalHi Sports had Clovis West ranked #6 in the state, and the Knights at #12, so this Championship game would feature two of the state’s heavyweights and the consensus top two teams in the Section nearly all season long. Despite Clovis West being a staple in the Open Division Playoffs, the Golden Eagles had yet to win an Open Division Title since its inception three years ago. The Eagle Nest was packed at game time and the stage was set for a much-anticipated match-up between the Section’s top teams.
The Knights came out of the gate pushing the pace of play on the offensive end and controlling the defensive rebounds, which allowed them to get out in transition. Standout junior guard Luis Marin looked to attack the defense early and often, and showed his range from deep, as he had 7 points after one quarter. Marin also had 3 assists in the early going, with two of them to junior wing/forward Will Kuykendall, who connected on a pair of threes. Clovis West was led by senior big man Tyus Parrish-Tillman, who was able to get going offensively early on and had 6 points and 4 rebounds as the Golden Eagles trailed the Knights by three points, 15-12, at the end of the first quarter.
The second quarter would be dominated by the Knights behind the continued sensational play of Marin, who added 9 points and 3 assists, to give him 16 points and 6 assists at the half. Senior guard Dre Roman and standout freshman Tounde Yessoufou combined for 10 points, Kuykendall chipped in his 3rd three for 9 points, and junior center Caedin Hamilton provided an unexpected 5 points, as the Knights would extend their lead to 15 points going into the locker room at the half, by a score of 42-27. The main takeaway from the first half was the physical dominance of the Knights perimeter players over the Golden Eagles guards. The length and size frustrated the perimeter players for Clovis West and led to poor shot selection and turnovers, which is how St. Joseph’s imposed their will on teams throughout the season.
Although the home team’s starting backcourt struggled to get going on offense and only accounted for 2 points combined between the three guards, there were two positive factors that the Golden Eagles could take with them into the 2nd half. First, Tounde Yessoufou, who averaged 27 points per game this season, only had 6 points as the size of Parrish-Tillman led to contested and altered shots for the freshman phenom that failed to go down. Secondly, although the starting guards struggled to score the ball, sophomore Jackson Young put the Golden Eagles on his back in the first half, as he connected on 4 threes and had 14 of the teams 27 points at intermission. Nevertheless, the way the Knights dominated all aspects of the game in the first two quarters, it seemed the hill that Clovis West had to climb to get back in the game may have been too steep.
The Golden Eagles have been a team that had faced large deficits in multiple games throughout the season, being down 17 points to Clovis North Broncos in the Clovis West Nike Invitational in December and down 22 points to Central Grizzlies of Fresno in a TRAC league game. Clovis West came back and won both of these games in overtime, so they were not in unfamiliar territory going into the second half of the Open Division Championship Game down 15 points. However, the lead quickly grew to twenty, 47-27, as the Knights scored 5 quick points to start the second half. The crowd was uneasy and you could sense the frustration in the stands, as it seemed like St. Joseph’s firepower would be too much. After a quick Clovis West timeout, the Golden Eagles started to chip away at the lead, as they would dominate the 3rd quarter of play.
Young continued his hot shooting from beyond the arc, as he would knock down 2 more threes in the 3rd quarter, as well as junior guard Issac Martinez scoring his first basket of the game from three, which would be the match that lit a fire under Martinez for the remainder of the game. Defensively, the Golden Eagles held the Knights to 7 points in the 3rd quarter, and the big three to just 2 baskets. Big Tyus added four points for Clovis West and continued to put in work on the glass, as the Golden Eagles would close the gap and end the 3rd quarter down only five points, 49-44. The stage was set for a battle in the fourth quarter, as the momentum had drastically swung in the direction of the Golden Eagles and the crowd was roaring in celebration.
After going scoreless in the 3rd quarter, Yessoufou would have a huge 4th quarter, as he scored 9 of his total 15 points in the final quarter. Yessoufou was dominant on the boards all game long and used his superior athleticism to block shots and score the ball around the basket. Unfortunately, the freshman phenom did not get much help from his teammates, as Roman was the only other player to score a basket for St. Joseph in the fourth.
The story of the game would be the stellar play of Clovis West’s Martinez in the second half, who would take over and score 15 of his 18 points in the 4th quarter and overtime. Martinez used his crafty handles and shifty moves to create separation on his smooth mid-range jumper and for tough finishes around the basket. Parrish-Tillman continued to add timely buckets around the rim, and the Golden Eagles got 4 big points from sophomore Tytus Khajavi. The score would be tied and each team would have the lead in the final quarter, but the Knights, after a basket from Roman, would have a two-point lead with less than 30 seconds of regulation on the game clock, 60-58. Coming out of a timeout, it was clear who would have the ball in his hands for the final shot. Martinez worked the clock down, set up on the left side of the court, and then went right to attack the rim, and scored the game-tying basket with a few seconds on the clock, as he accounted for half of the team’s 4th quarter points. After a missed heave at the buzzer by the Knights as time expired in regulation, the Golden Eagles had clawed back to even the score at 60 apiece and were headed into overtime to determine who would hoist the Section Championship plaque.
The Golden Eagles were in familiar territory; down by a large margin in the second half before making a huge comeback, sending the game into overtime, and being in their home gym. This had been a recipe that led to wins in the two previous games that followed this theme, and the home team appeared confident heading into extra play. Roman scored a tough basket for the Knights in overtime, but overtime play was dominated by Martinez, as he kept his foot on the gas and kept attacking the defense, scoring 7 points in overtime. However, it was the big-time 3 point shot from Young that put the game out of reach in favor of the Golden Eagles, and a 72-63 win in overtime over the Knights to capture their 1st Open Division Title. The Golden Eagles have been the best overall team in the Central Section throughout the season, and this game only cemented that narrative, as they battled back from a large deficit to defeat a very talented and battle-tested Knights team.
The Golden Eagles were led by Jackson Young’s 23 points, knocking down 7 threes, Issac Martinez’s 18 points (all in the 2nd half and overtime), and Tyus Parrish-Tillman’s 16 points and 13 rebounds. The Knights were led by Luis Marin’s 19 points, 6 rebounds, and 7 assists, Tounde Yessoufou’s 15 points and 15 rebounds, and Dre Roman’s 10 points and 8 rebounds. I had Martinez and Young as co-Players of the Game, as Young was crucial to keeping the Golden Eagles in the game in the 1st half, and Martinez was clutch in the 2nd half to spur Clovis West to victory. Coach Vance Walberg also reached a personal milestone, as this was his 500th win as the head coach at Clovis West. It was a great game that featured a lot of talent on the court, and the atmosphere was electric. Great way to end Section play.