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Tuesday, March 05, 2002 - 4:45:40 PM MST
Del Norte's amazing rally will live in history
Today may be another manic Monday for Kirk Burrows, but Saturday night was more than all right.
It was what almost all athletes and coaches live for.
The Del Norte High Warriors made such an amazing comeback to snatch the North Coast Section Division III boys basketball championship that the story of their 59-58 victory over Piner High should be retold for generations to come in Crescent City and Del Norte County.
Asked about what effect the unlikeliest of victories would have on the Warriors' playoff schedule this week in the Northern California Tournament, Burrows said, "I don't know. We'll worry about that on Monday. Tonight this one is going to be fun."
Del Norte's triumph bordered on miraculous Saturday night in Santa Rosa.
Piner, the home team in the title game played at Elsie Allen High, just across town from Piner, the No. 1 seed in the NCS Division III bracket, but about 300 miles south of Crescent City. Down by 18 a few seconds into the fourth quarter, Del Norte roared back, outscoring Piner 24-5 down the stretch to pull out the win on Justin Clifton's short jump shot 6.2 seconds from the buzzer.
It's now Monday, and the playoff draw for the NorCals is known, and by virtue of its victory, the Warriors have earned a home game in the first round, and they will host Natomas of Sacramento at the DN gym 7:30 p.m. Wednesday. As the fourth seed, Del Norte may be on a collision course in the semifinals, which will be the next round, with No. 1 seed Sacred Heart Cathedral of San Francisco, the Central Coast Section champion with a 28-3 record. That round will be played Saturday, with the NorCal final at UC Davis on Saturday, March 16. The Warriors now stand at 21-6, and taller than ever after Saturday night's heroics. And they and their fans should be forgiven to savor a little more one of the most unbelievable comebacks in who knows when around here.
Piner, until the game turned, was pressing, hitting the 3's, getting four or five turnovers to every one by the Warriors. But when it turned, it turned quickly. "The turnovers came so fast," said Piner coach Mike Erickson, a 1982 graduate of Eureka High. "I called a timeout, and then I called another, and all of a sudden they were back in the game." The Prospector coach insisted his players never thought they had the game won, even when up by 18, 53-35 with over seven minutes to go.
"We played hard. We should have won the game," Erickson said. "I think we were up by 18. When you get that close, you should seize the moment and get it done. We didn't." Levi Pulley (26 points) and Clifton (12 points) led the way, but everybody on the court made key contributions to Del Norte's rally. A stuff by Pulley with 1:54 to go got the Warriors to within seven, and Piner called another timeout trying to stem the flood. Piner large group of fans had roared earlier, but now the Del Norte fans were rocking the joint.
"Let's go! (Stomp, stomp) Warriors!" they chanted.
Said Pulley later: "Our fans were great. They lifted us."
A Clifton steal and layup made it 58-53. A Freddy Robinson steal, and several seconds later, Pulley missed once, was fouled after fighting ferociously to get the rebound and calmly made two free throws for 58-55 with 1:15 left. "We just wanted to keep them with range," Pulley said. "Once we got it down to five or so, we thought we had a really good chance." A bad pass gave Del Norte the ball with 51.2 to go. Del Norte worked the ball, looking for a good look at a tying 3, and then fed Pulley who took it to the hoop for a two that made it 58-57 with about 19 ticks to go. Del Norte pressed, hemmed a Piner player in the corner of his own court. A loose ball ensued with the Prospector losing it out of bounds. Del Norte ball with 11.4 to go.
Clifton got the ball, looked for Pulley, who was being held with two hands by a defender. Clifton took it to the lane, saying later he was looking to pass it to Pulley, but when the center couldn't tug himself free, popped it in himself. It took Piner until 3.7 was left to call time. Pulley intercepted a long pass upcourt, and the celebration began. "They were the better team, better athletes," acknowledged Clifton. "But we had more heart. We stuck together to the end and played as a team."
To paraphrase the country music classic, "Poncho and Lefty," say a prayer (perhaps of thanksgiving) for the Warriors, it is true, but save one too for Erickson and Piner.
Both finalists are in the eight-team NorCal brackets, and Prospectors will be dangerous in the playoffs coming up, a perhaps wizened what they endured. Let the next tournament began. It will have go some to match one unforgettable NCS title game.
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