Joe Davidson

Sheldon tops Folsom in another instant hoops classic to return to NorCal Open final

Sheldon guard Xavion Brown (2) reacts during the CIF NorCal Regional Open Division semifinal against Folsom on Tuesday at Cosumnes River College. No. 4 Sheldon won and will face No. 2 Bishop O'Dowd for the championship Saturday in Santa Clara.
Sheldon guard Xavion Brown (2) reacts during the CIF NorCal Regional Open Division semifinal against Folsom on Tuesday at Cosumnes River College. No. 4 Sheldon won and will face No. 2 Bishop O'Dowd for the championship Saturday in Santa Clara. jvillegas@sacbee.com

They didn't want to sacrifice home court, the comforts of their own locker room and pregame rituals.

But a 4.8-mile trek west worked wonders for the Sheldon Huskies on Tuesday night.

Getting off to a hot start with 3-point shooting, then seizing control with a 20-1 run that stretched into the fourth quarter behind a sophomore, a junior and a senior anchor leader, Sheldon held off Folsom 64-55 at Cosumnes River College in a CIF Northern California Open Division semifinal that was much closer than the final score would indicate.

It's the second thrilling victory over the Bulldogs for Sheldon this postseason, the first coming in a Sac-Joaquin Section Division I overtime semifinal at Sheldon's cozy 1,245-seat home venue.

On Friday, after Sheldon and Folsom won Open Division openers, Sheldon personnel scrambled to find a venue suitable for this event, sensing CIF officials would recommend a setting that seats at least 1,800. Athletic director Denise Aguilar helped secure CRC with a rush of calls, and CRC was stuffed to its 2,000-seat capacity. This game warranted such a setting.

Basketball purists and those seeking pure entertainment were treated to quite a show. The Bee's preseason top-ranked teams are still ranked that way, and they got here by playing with fundamentals and great flair.

Sheldon (28-5) is in a NorCal final for the fourth time since 2013, when it won the D-I title. The other finals trips for Sheldon were in the Open, a remarkable feat for a public school as the division was designed for the private-school heavies to slug it out. Folsom was in its third Open tournament since 2015, and it won a NorCal D-II championship in 2014.

Sheldon will take on storied Bishop O'Dowd of Oakland – a 61-58 semifinal winner Tuesday over Modesto Christian – on Saturday at Santa Clara's Leavey Center for a shot to take on a Southern California powerhouse for the CIF State championship on March 24 at Golden 1 Center.

Sheldon knows Leavey Center and it knows heartache, having lost in the closing seconds there to Woodcreek in last season's NorCal Open final. To return to the title game was a feat for a team that graduated a host of key players, including star guards Drew Cobb and Elishja Duplechan.

Sheldon principal Paula Duncan addressed the Huskies in their jubilant dressing room. She heaped praise on them, told them to enjoy the moment, then hugged coach Joey Rollings and team captain Dale Currie.

"It's tough to get to the finals, and it's really hard to win it," Rollings said. "I wasn't sure what we'd have this year, but I knew we'd be good. We're a little loosey-goosey sometimes, scatter-brained and not as serious as I am, but they focus when they need to. They play so hard. They get after it. They share the ball and play great defense."

Sheldon did all of that against a similarly well-coached Folsom team led by longtime coach Mike Wall, who rejoiced with Friday's upset of CalHi Sports state-ranked No. 1 Salesian of Richmond.

A junior guard, Kaito Williams scored 22 for Sheldon, including hot shooting from 3-point range early to set a tone. Currie, Sheldon's reliable ace all season as a senior guard, had 16 points and six rebounds in another typical all-around game. No one plays harder than the player they call "Predator" for his dreadlocks and relentless energy. He salted this one away with cool foul shooting down the stretch, as did steady junior guard Justin Nguyen.

Senior guard Dom Johnson, the late-game hero against San Joaquin Memorial of Fresno on Friday, had nine points and a lot of effort plays. Senior forward Ronald Agebsar was feisty on defense, per his norm, and yanked down nine rebounds. Senior center Chris Wriedt had seven rebounds and filled the lane with his bulk.

And there was Xavion Brown, who offered another glimpse of being perhaps Sheldon's next star. A sophomore guard who prides himself equally as much for his hoops prowess as his AP World History success, Brown is 6-2 and can do a bit of everything. He can handle the ball as the lead point guard to free up Currie. He can pass, he can defend and he can get up.

His thunderous down-the-land dunk just beat the third-quarter buzzer and gave Sheldon the lead for good at 49-47, part of that 20-1 run. It energized the Sheldon crowd and band. Brown had two more inside buckets to extend the lead to 53-47. A Williams 3 made it 56-47 with 3:44 left, and the Huskies were on their way.

"He's the best sophomore I know!" Currie said, raving about Brown, who sheepishly grinned at the kudos.

Said Brown of his role, "I'm supposed to penetrate the defense, facilitate and play defense."

Senior guard Isaiah Jones led Folsom (26-6) with 24 points, and senior center Mason Forbes had 11 points, 12 rebounds and seven blocked shots in his prep finale as one of the greatest Folsom ballers of them all. He is headed to Harvard. And per his good sportsmanship, Forbes wished the Huskies well in the post-game handshake line.

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