When your season suddenly comes to an end, it’s hard not to point the finger at yourself.
That was the scene in the Golden Valley locker room after the seventh-seeded Cougars fell short in a 69-64 loss to No. 2 Rodriguez (25-2) in the Sac-Joaquin Section Division 2 quarterfinal playoff game on Friday night.
Cougars center Josh Sykes sat in a corner with his face buried in a towel. Senior point guard Christian Carroll was sprawled on the floor with his head resting on his bag, staring at the ceiling.
Others wiped away tears.
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“I’m not going to be able to sleep tonight,” Carroll said. “I’ll think about missed jumpers in the fourth quarter, a couple missed free throws or a couple defensive breakdowns I had that gave them layups. I’m going to have to live with this feeling for probably three months.”
It’ll be a while before the Cougars (22-7) will be able to truly understand the game for what it was – a tough loss against a very good team.
Golden Valley hadn’t faced a team that pressed from start to finish with the speed Rodriguez ran out on the court this season.
The Mustangs game plan was simple: Attack the basket.
Players like Rishod Abraham (15 points), Kyle Williams (13), Armani Reed (13) and Tim Moore Jr. (13) went right at Sykes in the middle. Golden Valley’s 6-foot-6 center swatted away his share, but the fouls came quickly.
Sykes (16 points) picked up two fouls in the first quarter and was in and out the lineup the rest of the game with foul trouble.
“Josh is a game-changer,” Golden Valley coach Keith Hunter said. “He does a lot of what other guys can’t do. He mush have had eight or 10 blocks tonight. He was fabulous. Unfortunately he had to do everything on the floor. We allowed our big guy to get in foul trouble.”
Rodriguez struggled to match up with Sykes when he was on the floor. He threw down two alley-oop dunks in the second quarter to help the Cougars pull within 35-34 at half.
The Cougars remained in striking distance throughout, but their shots went cold in the fourth quarter.
“Obviously we’re going to turn the ball over some against them because they pressure like crazy,” said Carroll, who finished with 14 points “But we didn’t knock down shots when we were open. I being one of them. They wore me out. Those guys would reach around you and do it without fouling. It was tough.”
The Cougars were down five most of the fourth quarter, but couldn’t hit the big shot to put the pressure on Rodriguez. Golden Valley made just one of seven 3-point attempts in the fourth.
“I had good looks, just didn’t make them,” said Cougars senior Evan Stillahn, who scored 14. “When they don’t go in you try to relax, but it’s hard when in the back of your head you know your season could be ending.”
Carroll did pull the Cougars within 64-61 with 29 seconds left, but Rodriguez made 5 of 6 free throws the rest of the way to ice the game.
Rodriguez will face No. 6 Merced on Wednesday at Sleep Train Arena at 4 p.m. in the semifinals. The other semifinal will feature No. 1 Jesuit against No. 5 Kennedy at 5:30 p.m.
“We got so close, but we were so far,” Stillahn said. “It wasn’t enough. We fell short of what we wanted to accomplish this season. It hurts.”