When their leading rebounder and inside muscle went down late in the first half Saturday night, the Antelope Titans could have gone either way.
Go down collectively, sapped of their spirit, or respond.
Antelope regrouped, recoiled and unleashed, playing its best playoff defense in the second half in a 70-63 win over upstart Grant to defend its Sac-Joaquin Section Division II championship at Sleep Train Arena.
Senior Isaiah Ellis, all 6-foot-7 of wide body, long arms and defensive tenacity, was lost for the game with a foot injury after scoring 10 points and grabbing seven rebounds.
"The effort we gave in the second half was amazing," Antelope coach Rob Richards said. "It would have been so easy for our guys (to be deflated) after our leader goes down. But we rallied."
And No. 3 Antelope (25-6) rallied against a No. 4 Grant team (23-7) that competed as if it had nothing to lose.
Antelope didn't have a lot of answers for De'Sean Parsons, Grant's terrific all-around 6-6 senior guard, but then again, that's been the case for everyone this season in dealing with one of the section's top talents.
Parsons scored 27 points and had eight rebounds, but the Titans challenged him in the second half. They stalled him down the stretch and seized control.
Antelope's Rashard Thornhill hit a corner three-pointer after his teammates worked the ball for a 69-61 lead with 55 seconds left to effectively end Grant's hopes.
Though Ellis is of star material, what makes Antelope so complete as a unit and so dangerous is it has a supporting cast capable of a Northern California championship run.
Forward Gabe Bealer scored 24 points and had seven rebounds, soaring for dunks and powering inside. Football star Tyler Winston was effective at guard, scoring eight points with a game-high five assists. Thornhill, a 6-3 guard, had 14 points and six rebounds.
Isiah Quintero had seven points and eight rebounds, Leonard Hazewood, Nick Golovko and Mister Harriel also contributed to the victory.
"Defense and toughness, I mean, come on, he goes down after he was so dominant," Richards said of Ellis. "Hard to lose him. We played great defense in the second half. That's our trademark, and this was a true team effort."
Said Bealer, "I had to step up for Isaiah; we all did."
Grant has fielded 32 playoff teams, winning its first section title in 1977.
Antelope is still growing as a school and developing into an athletic power.
It sent its first varsity team to Sleep Train two seasons ago, where it stunned top-seeded Woodcreek in a semifinal before losing to St. Mary's of Stockton in the final, and then beat Lodi in last season's title game.
The Titans are 11-1 in section playoff games under Richards.
"I couldn't be more proud," Richards said. "It's a burden that they're good and that we're here, but they've handled it really well."
Antelope and Grant both advance to the Northern California Regional playoffs that start next week. Antelope could earn a top-two seed today in the D-II field as it appears to be a long shot for the newly formed Open division for elite programs that have won three or more section titles in a row, or have similar NorCal credentials.