In the game's opening moments, the Pleasant Grove Eagles absorbed a blow an elbow to the chin of Matt Smrekar, delivered by Deer Valley's Marcus Lee. Smrekar jumped up, massaged his sore face and offered an expression as if to wonder, "That's all you got?"
Turns out Deer Valley didn't have enough, and Pleasant Grove had plenty.
The Eagles now have to make room in their trophy case in Elk Grove for a championship that puts some gloss on a season of second-place finishes.
Second-seeded Pleasant Grove used balance on offense and genuine grit to beat No. 1 Deer Valley of Antioch 73-60 Saturday night for the Northern California Division I Regional championship at Sleep Train Arena.
Smrekar, a 6-foot-1 senior, embraced the task of fronting and muscling Lee, a 6-10 McDonald's All-American headed to Kentucky.
Also checking Lee was 6-7 Marquese Chriss. The sophomore post took an elbow to the eye and had it bandaged in a scene plucked from a heavyweight bout.
Chriss had 10 points and eight rebounds, and Smrekar had six points, six rebounds and plenty of forearm offerings to the back of Lee, who never got on track offensively, scoring 10 points. Lee did have 16 rebounds and three blocked shots.
"I told Marquese, 'You're going to get dunked on by this guy because he's really good; it's how you respond,' and he responded," said Pleasant Grove assistant coach Bill McCoin, a powerful shooting forward during his Casa Roble High School days 25 years ago.
"Marquese battled, and so did Smrekar. Matt wanted it. Anything we ask of these guys, they do it with all their heart."
What Eagles head coach John DePonte especially pushed for this season was effort and resolve. Pleasant Grove placed second in the Delta River League and was the runner-up in the Sac-Joaquin Section D-I field, with Sheldon winning both.
The Eagles (27-6) couldn't bear the thought of another consolation finish with a loss to the Wolverines (26-6).
"I can't express how proud I am," DePonte said. "Perseverance is a great word for this team, resilience, and to never lose sight of what we wanted to do and to finally break through."
Smrekar and Chriss earned accolades for their fortitude, and the other three starters, seniors known as the Eagles' Big Three, showcased another balanced and deadly offensive game.
Guard Matt Hayes led all scorers with 20 points and had five rebounds, forward Cole Nordquist had 16 points and 12 rebounds, and floor leader and point guard Malik Thames celebrated his 18th birthday with 17 points and five rebounds. Thames, as polite as he is game-time fierce, was also presented with the CIF Sportsmanship Award.
Already a fine shooting team, Pleasant Grove proved it on the line in the biggest game in program history, making 27 of 28 free throws.
Nordquist had a coast-to-coast basket for a 67-60 lead, and he, Hayes and Thames iced it by hitting two free throws each in the closing seconds as an Elk Grove Unified School District team took a NorCal title for the second straight season. Sheldon won the D-I title last season, beating fellow DRL member Jesuit.
In the first half, Chriss demonstrated Pleasant Grove's determination to prevent a dunk-fest by Lee, known to throw down some highlight beauties. Chriss administered a hard foul as Lee was ready to finish an alley-oop dunk. Players from both sides glowered at each other.
Lee said the Eagles defended him well.
"I saw a man in front of me and a man behind me," Lee said. "They did a good job on us."