MODESTO — Atwater High had all but punched its ticket to the second round of the Sac-Joaquin Section boys' basketball playoffs.
Midway through the second quarter, the Falcons were getting the ball to center Ben Peterson almost at will and were sailing along with a nine-point lead at Gregori, which had lost its two primary ballhandlers to facial gashes early in the game.
And then, Atwater's offense disappeared. Instead of taking advantage of the Jaguars' weakness at guard, it was the Falcons who threw the ball away, and with it the season as they scored but 15 second-half points in a 54-50 loss.
"We pressured them, trying to put more pressure on their other guards to make plays, but we came out after halftime very cold," said Tony Hillyer, whose first year as Atwater head coach ended with a 16-12 mark. We couldn't get the ball to Ben."
Peterson led all scorers with 26 points, but appeared headed for a much larger output after a 14-point second quarter. When he was fouled and made two free throws with 3 minutes, 26 seconds, left in the first half, Atwater had a 31-22 lead and should have been in control against the team Gregori was able to put on the floor.
The Jaguars (17-10) lost starting guard Jarrell Rogers just 1:45 into the game when he tripped while crashing the boards and opened a deep gash on his forehead.
Less than two minutes later, Falcon junior guard Jordan Esparza picked off a pass and drove the other way for a basket. But as he made the layup, Gregori guards Dom Wash and Darius Nuttall collided in mid-air, then Nuttall landed on Wash's head, driving his chin into the floor and opening up another deep cut that would require stitches.
Since the Jaguars' strength is in their guard play, the Falcons appeared in position to breeze into Wednesday's game at Burbank of Sacramento. Instead, it was Atwater that looked confused.
The Falcons committed turnovers on their first five possessions of the second half, spurring a 14-3 Gregori run that allowed the Jaguars to turn a 35-30 halftime deficit into a 44-38 lead. Peterson touched the ball only three times in the third quarter and missed his only shot.
"I don't know if they did a good job guarding him or even double-teaming him, but I do think that we panicked when they made that run to start the second half," Hillyer said.
But Atwater wasn't finished. All it took for the Falcons to get back into the game was a renewed effort to feed Peterson in the post. The junior responded with eight fourth-quarter points, including a three-point play with 1:29 left that gave the Falcons a 50-49 lead.
They wouldn't score again, and in a second half that saw them tally but 15 points, Gregori was able to pull away at the foul line despite converting only three of their final 10 free throw attempts.
"This game really showed our youth," Hillyer said. "We don't really have floor leaders and we can't rely on Ben to do everything out there. I mean, he can't be the one bringing up the ball. We'll be doing a lot of working with the guards in the offseason."