Joe Davidson

Kennedy High coach sees big potential in team

Cougars head coach Robert Fong watches from the bench during the Sac Joaquin Section Division I Boys semi-final game between the Jesuit Marauders and the Kennedy Cougars at Sleep Train Arena in Sacramento on Wednesday, March 5, 2014.
Cougars head coach Robert Fong watches from the bench during the Sac Joaquin Section Division I Boys semi-final game between the Jesuit Marauders and the Kennedy Cougars at Sleep Train Arena in Sacramento on Wednesday, March 5, 2014. rbenton@sacbee.com

Robert Fong sizes up his gritty basketball team and sees great promise and potential.

The veteran Kennedy High School coach implores effort, and generally receives it. He also demands the fundamental concept of valuing the ball. Sometimes, to the chagrin and angst of the old coach, that message doesn’t always sink in and the ball sails every which way, including into the hands of the opponent.

Kennedy withstood a flurry of mistakes against a formidable foe and made the last charge a winning one in downing Monterey Trail 65-58 on Wednesday night in a Sac-Joaquin Section Division I playoff opener in Greenhaven.

The Cougars (22-5) received steady offensive contributions from seven players, and the team had moments of overall stellar play, but 18 turnovers had Fong and longtime coaching partner Joe Mugartegui in fits.

“We can beat any team in the section, I have no doubt about it,” Fong said. “But we have to play smarter, and we can. We haven’t played our best game yet. I can’t wait to see it. We just need to play solid. That’s all we need to do.”

Guards Colin Uda, Darian Carr and Cole Taira scored 21, 15 and 14 points, respectively, for Kennedy on an array of drives, jumpers and free throws. Sophomore front-court players Austin Alexander and Ramar Crump provided the inside impact, combining for nine hard points and 19 rebounds. And guards Khari Hutt and Jovan Perez supplied balance and effort for Kennedy in downing a Monterey Trail team that was feisty, quick and well-coached under Ken Manfredi.

The Mustangs (17-11) used a 10-2 run to pull to within 50-49 with 4:18 to go. Kennedy responded with a 9-0 run and then iced it on six free throws. The turning-point play was an Alexander block and recovery, which led to a Taira bucket and foul for a 55-49 lead.

Quientin Johnson scored 17 poins and Jermaine Bell 12 for Monterey Trail.

Kennedy is a program steeped in decades of tradition. The walls of the gym are adorned with championship banners dating back to the early 1980s and through the mid-1990s, all under famed coach Spider Thomas, whose assistants then were Fong and Mugartegui. In a bit of reverse loyalty, Thomas has for several seasons kept the official score book for Fong. Kennedy won its last section title in 2004.

Fong, a star guard at Kennedy in the 1970s, told the Cougars if they want to have their own legacy, they have to up their game considerably. Fong admits he’s passionate about this team because of that potential, and because this is his school, and because winning at this time of year is a cherished deal.

Alexander, who seemingly improves by the week, is “a monster for us,” Fong said. The guards are steady when they’re not turning it over.

“We can be really good, and we’re a smart team,” Alexander said.

Kennedy on Friday plays at Pleasant Grove, which won the CIF State Division I championship in 2013 and lost a playoff opener a year ago. Pleasant Grove downed Tracy 75-47 on Wednesday.

Follow Joe Davidson on Twitter @SacBee_JoeD.

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