It was the battle of the Eagles on Saturday night inside of the Louise Marchant Gymnasium at the Turlock High School campus as Turlock Christian faced off against Elliot Christian (Lodi) in a Central California Athletic Alliance showdown. Not only that, but the Turlock Christian squad hoped to give their fans a treat, as homecoming festivities brought out the largest audience of the season. And boy did the players on both teams deliver, with Turlock Christian pulling out the 52-50 victory.
It was a back-and-forth affair for all 32 minutes of gametime. For the 1-4 Elliot Christian squad, a win was desperately needed to stay relevant in league standings. Meanwhile for 3-2 Turlock Christian, not only were league implications heavy on the mind, but seeding in Sac-Joaquin Section playoffs also weighed heavy.
With high stakes came high pressure, though, especially in the first half. Both teams came out the gates with high energy, but scoring was low as missed shots and failure to execute plays took place for both teams on each end of the floor. After a lengthy halftime due to the crowning of a new homecoming court, it seemed to be an entirely different game.
One of the players who flipped a switch was Turlock Christian’s Raffa Babba. One of the top scorers for the Eagles all season averaging 11.5 points per game, Babba was one of the players who couldn’t get a shot to fall in the first half, missing 5 of 7 from the field. After a pep talk from head coach Jacob Gregg at halftime, he was off to the races.
Babba would go off for 14 points in the second half, eventually finishing with 20 on the night to lead all scorers. His energy was also felt on the defensive end, as he compiled 3 fourth quarter steals.
“Honestly, I knew I had started off slow, but I knew that I would come into the second half better and stronger,” Babba said. “I just kept the mindset of forgetting about that first half and thinking of that second half as a whole new game.”
Gregg felt his team played well in the first half, but it was just that some bounces simply didn’t go their way, which was his ultimate message to Babba at the half.
“The boys settled in at halftime and played with more confidence, especially Babba who dominated the game. I just told him, ‘It’s your game. I haven’t seen anyone who has been able to stop you yet, so keep shooting. It’s go time.’ He’s really progressing and taking his game to the next level.” Gregg said.
Turlock Christian captain Case DeJong also had a big night, but not one he was quite accustomed to. Coming into Saturday night, the 6-foot senior guard was the Eagles’ leading scorer, averaging 15.7 points per game, but despite being limited to 4 for 10 shooting from the field, he made sure to still make himself an important factor in the game. Though he still managed to score 11 points, he matched that figure with 11 rebounds, most being off of Elliot Christian missed shots. He also had 5 steals by night’s end.
“I just thought that if Raffa was going to be carrying us offensively, I just needed to do my job on the other end, keep our team composed and keep control of that ball,” DeJong explained.
Gregg also appreciated the defensive efforts of freshman center Seth Russell and sophomore forward Andrew Fisher. Russell finished with 8 rebounds on the night, with 3 coming in the final two minutes of gametime. He also had 2 blocks and 11 points. Fisher was also crashing the boards late in the contest with 3 defensive rebounds of his own in the final frame.
“Seth was huge for us, and these are really big games for him as a freshman.” Gregg said. “We’ve been urging him to step into that defensive role, and he did a phenomenal job. I’m really proud of him, and Fisher too who grabbed some big boards for us down the stretch.”
The performances from Russell and Fisher were much needed, as they slowed down Elliot’s high-powered trio of Jeremy Nielson, Roman Castro and Jeremiah Carter. Castro led Elliot with 15 points while Nielson came in a close second, scoring 12 points all by way of the three ball. 10 points from Carter also helped the visiting Eagles stay withing striking distance up until the final buzzer.
“A close game like this is pretty much what I anticipated,” Gregg said. “This is a good and well coached team with a couple of dynamic players, but we did what we needed to tonight to get the win.”
In their next matchup, Turlock Christian took on the Knights of Stone Ridge Christian on Tuesday, suffering a 68-54 loss. Regardless, the Eagles maintained their standing in Section rankings, as they are ranked third in Division VI boys varsity basketball by MaxPreps.com.