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Sunday, March 03, 2002 - 7:17:20 AM MST

Del Norte edges Piner for NCS boys crown

Jack Rux The Times Standard

SANTA ROSA -- Oh momma, Del Norte's Warriors pulled off the mother of all comebacks Saturday night. Down 18 early in the fourth quarter and being harassed and turned every which way but loose by the press of the Piner Prospectors, the Warriors calmed themselves and pumped themselves back up after being pancaked on the floor of the Elsie Allen High School gym. Then they came roaring back. Justin Clifton's floating jump shot in the lane nestled in the twine with 6.2 seconds left to cap an amazing comeback that gave Del Norte a 59-58 victory and the Division III boys basketball championship of the North Coast Section. "Just keep plugging, that's what these kids did," said Del Norte's delirious coach Kirk Burrows afterward. "We're not the prettiest team, but we just keep plugging."

By the time the Warriors finished plugging and chugging Saturday night they had a title that had just eluded them two years ago when Foothill stormed back late.

They also had the second NCS crown of any kind in the the school's history, joining last year's wrestling team in that rare company.

Del Norte now is 21-6 and heading to the NorCal Tournament next week with the good possibility to get a high seed and to host a first-round game.

Piner fell to 24-7, and will also go on to the NorCals but was denied not only a high seeding but also an NSC crown the Prospectors thought they had in the bag.

"I feel bad for them, but I feel more happy for us," Burrows said. "They are a tremendous opponent."

The veteran high school coach also said he had never been involved in a comeback to victory from that far behind that fast.

"No, never, and especially not in a game as big as this," Burrows said.

When Jarrod Silva swished a 3 to put the No. 1-seeded Santa Rosa team up 53-35, the senior reserve whirled both hands over his head, whipping up the loud and large Piner followers to a crescendo.

But the Warriors from the north would not break, and pretty soon, Del Norte ripped off an 8-0 run to pull within 10 at 53-43, and Piner coach Mike Erickson, a 1982 graduate of Eureka High, called a timeout with 5:27 to go.

Del Norte's players had been back on their heels the first three quarters, and it hurt them not only in the 13-15 turnovers they gave up but also on defense where their guards appeared to be tentative, leery of the Prospectors' quick perimeter personnel.

"We were tired," Clifton said, "but our hearts weren't."

Del Norte's stocky forward also said that after winning a game in overtime the night before in Crescent City and traveling more than 350 miles Saturday, "We just had to take three quarters to get ourselves warmed up."

Six-foot-7 Levi Pulley, strong most of the game, turned into an animal down the stretch, taking it to the hoop time and again. He finished with a team-high 26 points.

A bad free-throw shooter most of the season, Pulley knocked down free throw after free throw, missing only two that this reporter could recall. When Del Norte went to halftime behind 34-23, Pulley said, "The coach really chewed me out. So in the second half, I decided every time I touched the ball, I was going to score."

Pat Taylor scored a game-high 29 points for Piner, including four 3-pointers, and Jarrod Durling was a leading accomplice with three 3-pointers in his 11 points.

But suddenly in the fourth quarter, the Warriors started getting turnovers, eight in the final six and a half minutes, and then "it was them who were back on their heels," Burrows said. "It happens. It happens to good teams, at every level. I saw it happen to Duke three nights ago."

Piner felt as if it were hit by a truck.

"That's the toughest loss ever," Piner's Erickson said. "They (Del Norte) didn't quit. That's the sign of a good team. ... The turnovers came so fast. 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.

"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."

A stuff by Pulley with 1:54 to go got the Warriors to within seven, and Piner called its second timeout of the Del Norte rally. Now the Del Norte fans were rocking the joint.

"Let's go! (Stomp, stomp) Del Norte!" they chanted.

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 calmy made two free throws for 58-55 with 1:15 left.

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 knocking 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.

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