Derek Swafford is no scientist, but he has a pretty good sense of people, and he has a concrete feel about the makeup of his gritty, skilled basketball team.
The veteran Sacramento High School coach said his Dragons are wired to compete. Their intent is to exhaust opponents with smothering defense, then run them out of the gym with a frenetic, breakneck pace.
“That’s who we are, what we do, our DNA,” Swafford said.
Resilience also is part of The Bee’s top-ranked team. Leading by 18 and then suddenly nursing a two-point lead late, Sacramento never lost its composure in holding off equally inspired Antelope 72-68 on Saturday night at Sleep Train Arena in a fun and fast Sac-Joaquin Section Division II championship bout of regional heavies.
It’s the sixth such title since 2007 for the Dragons under Swafford, the towering, glowering shaved-head leader who players insist becomes a full-bore teddy bear away from competition.
Swafford preaches unity, effort and “critical thinking.” Don’t buckle under silly mistakes, he implores his group. And think out there, or think about sitting on the bench.
The message has sunk in to his core seniors, especially leaders Solomon Young and Christian Terrell. They have been four-year varsity starting cornerstones, and this was their first section championship after some painful defeats at Sleep Train.
At 6-foot-7, Young is a powerful presence inside who also can hit three-pointers. He competes with fierce intensity and says nothing in battle – all business. The Iowa State-bound star had 25 points, nine rebounds, three assists and two blocked shots.
Terrell, a 6-5 guard headed to UC Santa Barbara, had seven points and 11 rebounds, and he was superb at times in the open floor, zooming upcourt like a jet, much like his teammates.
Sayvon Hines had 15 points, Raphael Durr nine, Jermaine Henderson seven and Andrew Williams six, helping to make the Dragons difficult to cover.
Two inside baskets by Young gave the Dragons a 65-55 lead with 4:41 to go, but Antelope wouldn’t quit. A Kai Tease basket pulled the Titans to within 70-68 with 1:03 to play.
Tease, who had 25 points, flinched as his three-point attempt with 8.6 seconds left rimmed out. He made five threes. Henderson sealed it for Sacramento with two free throws with 7.9 seconds to go.
The Dragons, remembering recent seasons, savored the victory.
“We’d gotten here but couldn’t close the door,” Swafford said. “This time we closed it.”
The Dragons have slammed a lot of doors this season, like a vault. They’re 29-1, losing only to Bay Area power Moreau Catholic in the Martin Luther King Classic at Cal on Jan. 18.
“The loss helped,” Terrell said. “We had 10-point leads and couldn’t hold on. We’ve been building on it, getting better.”
Sacramento anticipates a return trip to Sleep Train later this month in the Northern California Regional title game. The Dragons will be placed in the prestigious Open Division in Sunday’s NorCal seeding meeting, and it’s a wide-open field.
The Dragons vow to compete, per their DNA, and this includes the one player with something of a glum face. Durr landed hard in the fourth quarter, popping his shoulder out. The senior was helped off the floor but managed to return – ice pack, grimace and all – to collect a championship hat and patch. Durr is yet another up-tempo guard, big on heart and skill.
“We need him,” Swafford said. “If we don’t have him, we’ve got to go anyway. It’s life. It’s what life teaches you. Things happen. You respond.”
Tim Strijaous had 19 points and 14 rebounds, and Montel Aaron had 18 points for Antelope (23-8), which still advances to the NorCal D-II playoffs, albeit as a road team.