Joe Davidson

Grant Pacers play young and fall to seasoned St. Mary's in D-II section finals

Grant Pacer’s head coach P. Deonard Wilson hugs Steven Richardson (5) after he fouled out during the fourth quarter as the Grant Pacers fell to the St. Mary’s Ram in the CIF Division II Sac-Joaquin Section title game in the Spanos Center at the University of the Pacific, Friday, March 2, 2018.
Grant Pacer’s head coach P. Deonard Wilson hugs Steven Richardson (5) after he fouled out during the fourth quarter as the Grant Pacers fell to the St. Mary’s Ram in the CIF Division II Sac-Joaquin Section title game in the Spanos Center at the University of the Pacific, Friday, March 2, 2018. Special to The Sacramento Bee

They race onto the floor looking the part of a formidable lot: long, lean, explosive.

But the Grant Pacers are as young and unpolished as they are promising.

Playing with poise and fury to get this far, the fifth-seeded Pacers suddenly lost themselves amid a flurry of missed shots and forced passes, performing like a group that starts no seniors on a stage they were not quite ready for. The ball rattled out of the rim, calls didn't go their way and they couldn't solve a team that performed as if it belonged here.

And you know what high school coaches say: Nothing beats senior experience.

Second-seeded St. Mary's of Stockton seized control in the second half and prevailed 66-56 over the fifth-seeded Pacers to win the Sac-Joaquin Section Division II boys basketball championship Friday night at the University of the Pacific.

It's the ninth section banner for the storied Rams, who have been doing this sort of thing since the 1970s. They are coached by Ken Green, an alum of the school who never tires of winning. Grant was in a section final for the first time since 1999, when it won its second championship in three seasons.

That Grant got to this point wasn't surprising to veteran coach Deonard Wilson. But after playing so well to dispatch top-seeded Antelope in a semifinal, this wasn't the same Pacers team. A large part of that was St. Mary's, which refused to allow the faster and taller Pacers to take over.

"We'll use this loss, all this pain to get better, because we know we can play better," Wilson said. "All those loose balls, those missed free throws, those missed layups, it should hurt. All the little things we could do and need to do. And that's the frustrating part. I know how good we can be. We're so close.

"We always thought it'd be next year. But we know Pleasant Grove won a section a few years ago and still went on to win state. It can be done. If anyone can do it, our babies here can, our kids. They don't know any better, and I love that about them. We'll be back."

Grant (21-10) will still advance to the CIF Northern California Division II Regional tournament that starts next week. St. Mary's (23-8) expects to earn a high seed in the NorCals. The Rams performed like veterans, with a good many of them tasting playoff defeat on this floor a year ago to Woodcreek in Division I.

For Green, this was satisfying fun. It's his third banner as coach, and fifth overall, having played for famed coach Jon Gustorf on the Rams' D-I title teams in 1981 and '82. St. Mary's beat Grant in '81 and Kevin Johnson and Sacramento in '82.

Steady junior guard Carson Simi led the Rams with 21 points, and Bryce Johnson had 19 points and 12 rebounds. Dee Juan Pruitt, a junior forward, led Grant with 18 points and 10 rebounds. Sophomore guard AJ McGee had 13 points.

Freshman point guard Corey Yerger had eight points and five assists for the Pacers. Grant shot just 39 percent, making one of 12 3-point shots.

"We respect and admire Grant," Green said. "Winning is very rewarding. We do have experience, and that always helps."

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