ATWATER — With about 30 seconds left on the clock the Buhach Colony High student section started chanting, “No more playoffs.”
It’s a chant that will likely sting for a while in Atwater as the Thunder did end any hope of the Falcons making the playoffs with a 68-57 win at the Nest on Friday night in the regular season finale for both teams.
Buhach Colony coach John Bliss said knocking Atwater out of the playoffs was extra motivation, but sending his players out with a win was more important.
“It was an underlining incentive,” said Bliss, whose team finished 5-22 and 2-8 in the Central California Conference. “It’s not something you try to hammer home. Our kids wanted to win the final game.”
Thunder senior John Zaragoza prevented any thoughts Atwater had of a fourth quarter comeback by scoring 15 of his 20 points in the final stanza. His contributions were big after Buhach Colony lost seniors Kaden Verdin (16 points) and Kevin Walejko to fouls.
“Two of our senior starters had fouled out,” Zaragoza said. “I knew I had to play a big role.”
The Falcons (16-11, 4-6) needed a win and a Turlock loss to Pitman on Friday to earn a playoff spot. However, Atwater came out shooting cold and quickly fell behind 22-7 early in the second quarter.
The Thunder led by as many as 19 in the first half.
Atwater made an 11-2 run to start the third quarter to cut Buhach Colony’s lead to 36-32 midway through the third quarter. The Falcons had momentum by working the ball inside to Ben Peterson, who lived at the foul line making 10 of 15 shots from the charity stripe.
Peterson finished with 16 points. Josh Heller added 14 points and Anthony De La Hoya added 12.
The Thunder answered, scoring nine straight points to close out the third quarter to extend their lead to 45-32 heading into the fourth.
“When they made their run we just kept calm and controlled our turnovers,” Zaragoza said. “We had to take care of the ball.”
Atwater lost its composure at times in the second half as both Peterson and Anthony De La Hoya were hit with technical fouls.
The game was played before a raucous crowd that spilled outside of the Nest. There was a crowd of people that watched from outside the front doors and others stood in the corners of they gym.
Bliss was showered with water in the Thunder locker room as his players celebrated the win.
“I’ve been proud of all these guys all season,” Bliss said. “This was just another example of why I’ve been proud of them. This team has faced more adversity than any team I’ve coached. We lost kids before and after our first scrimmage. They just kept working hard. Words can’t say how proud I am.
Sun-Star staff writer Shawn Jansen can be reached at (209) 385-2462 or firstname.lastname@example.org.