MERCED — To say the least, they were ready for this moment.
All the free throws they had to make and all the unique preparation tactics their coach threw at them in the days leading up to it were necessary, as the Turlock High boys basketball players celebrated a share of the Central California Conference championship for the first time in five years on someone else’s court.
The Bulldogs once again utilized their deep bench, survived an influx of fouls against them and made nine of 12 free throws in the fourth, while showing no visible effects of a rowdy crowd to beat Golden Valley High 71-64 on Wednesday night inside a visiting gym.
This season, the Cougars were the only league team to beat the Bulldogs, who enter the postseason with a 20-6 overall record and 14-1 in the CCC after beating crosstown rival Pitman High on Friday night.
“It was a great win for us to beat this team,” Turlock senior guard Anthony Hubbard said about Wednesday’s win. “It’s the only team that got in our way in the CCC.”
After falling behind by as many as 12 points in the second half, Golden Valley — which entered the game with the same league record as Turlock’s — rallied back to cut the deficit to just 63-60 with 2 minutes left in the game. That’s when the Bulldogs began losing their starters. Ashton Richardson (11 points) and Hubbard (16 points) both were eventually whistled for their fifth foul, undoubtedly making the Turlock bench and crowd sweat a little.
It didn’t matter much, however.
This was when the Bulldogs benefited from coach Doug Cornfoot’s unique preparation work. He demanded his players to nail 300 free throws by Wednesday’s game in practice, in addition to pumping up the stereo inside their gym to the highest level to replicate the type of crowd that would show up to the Golden Valley High gym, where the Bulldogs had lost once this season.
The opposing fans started the taunting during warm-ups, yelling out each missed shot by the Turlock players. When it counted, the Bulldogs made their shots. They knocked in four of six free throws in the final 2 minutes, while sixth man Matt Ruesga was a crowd-pleaser and finished with a game-high 26 points.
“It’s going to be a tough call for MVP of the league,” Cornfoot said. “Matt has stepped up and had a great league run. Matt has had that kind of a season.”
In the end, the Bulldogs endured a total of 50 fouls (29 against them) and four technical fouls — while Golden Valley’s top layer, Trek Fayerweather, exploded for 19 points — to win the CCC title. Oh, there was also the flagrant foul called on a Golden Valley player during a fastbreak layup that resulted in Richardson slamming hard into the wall.
Yeah, that’s how physical the game was.
“Coming down here, you know that both teams know how to play,” Cornfoot said. “We expected it to be a physical, rough game.”
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