Now that they’re here, at the finish line of a long, arduous grind, the Woodcreek Timberwolves look to conclude their historic boys basketball season with an exclamation point.
The final high school game of the season plays out Saturday night at Golden 1 Center, home of the Kings, site of last weekend’s energy-filled NCAA Tournament first- and second-round regional men’s games, and site of the CIF State Basketball Championships.
Woodcreek High School takes its 19-game winning streak and school-best 32-2 record into the Open Division showcase against Bishop Montgomery of Torrance, which comes in with a 14-game winning streak and 30-2 mark.
The Knights are ranked No. 4 nationally by MaxPreps. And per the norm for Southern California powerhouse programs, this is a different animal from what northern teams are used to playing. SoCal teams overwhelmingly dominate the boys title games, particularly in the upper divisions.
In the four years since the Open Division began, the South has prevailed three times with Mater Dei of Santa Ana (twice) and Chino Hills last season with Lonzo Ball leading the charge of a 35-0 squad that finished No. 1 in the country by multiple publications.
Woodcreek made a unique breakthrough this season, becoming the first Sac-Joaquin Section program to reach the Open state final as well as being the first NorCal public school.
Timberwolves coach Paul Hayes played at Del Campo in the early 1980s, an era when it was unheard of for Sacramento teams to even reach the NorCal rounds, and sometimes to even reach the section Division I final. That trend carried throughout the 1990s and early 2000s for some divisions.
“The area game has come so far, and it’s exciting to see,” Hayes said.
Imagine the glee of victory. The Woodcreek student rooting section, The Black Mob, will be on hand as well as the band. Woodcreek will need every bit of help to derail Bishop Montgomery, which beat Mater Dei in section play 70-55, Chino Hills 87-80 in SoCal regional play and Mater Dei again 60-53 to win the SoCal Open title.
Woodcreek lost to Chino Hills 108-93 in December in a south-state tournament featuring teams from throughout the country. That sort of competition has helped elevate northern teams. Area teams playing tough opponents on the road early in the season became the norm in the past decade. The thinking was simple: To become better, one must play the best.
Will it be enough for Woodcreek to become the best? A victory ensures Woodcreek’s place as one of the area’s all-time great teams, lumped with the Bill Cartwright-led Elk Grove teams of 1974 and ’75, the Isaac Fontaine-led Jesuit team of 1993 and the Dakarai Allen and D’Erryl Williams Sheldon group of 2013.
One thing is certain: The Timberwolves fear no one. They relish the challenge.
“We’re ready,” said senior Jackson Hughes. “We have to be ready.”
Woodcreek may have the best player on the floor Saturday night. Jordan Brown, a 6-foot-11 junior, is already one of the most heavily recruited athletes in area history, along with Cartwright and former Cordova running back Kevin Willhite in 1981.
“There isn’t much Jordan can’t do,” Hayes said.
Said Brown: “We’re confident. We’ve played in big games. (Winning would) be great for Sacramento.”
Brown’s greatest gift might be his poise. He handles the pressure of being a star, of burdening this load amid the national spotlight with aplomb.
“I don’t know how he does it, but he’s great at it,” Woodcreek athletic director Lori Ann Donnell said. “Most high school kids wouldn’t be able to handle this.”
Brown is long, active and skilled. He averages 26.3 points and 15.7 rebounds. He has won games with a fraction of a second left with free throws. He has set the tone with dunks, or slick baseline moves, or with blocked shots to ignite a break.
Brown is flanked by steady guards Hughes and Tyrell Roberts and forwards Chris Cagle and Naequan Parker.
Bishop Montgomery isn’t a big team, but it is fast and skilled. The Knights are led by 6-4 combo guard Ethan Thompson, the best player coach Doug Mitchell said he’s had in his 28-year career. Thompson has signed with Oregon State and averages 22 points a game.
“He really doesn’t have a flaw,” Mitchell said. “He can score and shut down opponents’ best player. The best part of him is he’s such a humble kid. He always has time for people.”
Sounds just like Brown. And it sounds like a great game in the making.