The grip around the Central California Conference championship just got a lot tighter for the Golden Valley High boys basketball team.
The Cougars turned in a strong performance on both sides of the court, led by Etrell Bowers’ 20 points and 11 rebounds, in a 71-57 win over El Capitan on Wednesday night.
The victory gives Golden Valley (18-5 overall, 7-0 CCC) a two-game lead over the Gauchos with just five games remaining.
“For us, we have to keep working,” said Golden Valley coach Keith Hunter, whose team is looking for the seventh conference championship in school history and first since 2014. “All it takes is one game not being focused and ready. Last year we lost four of our last five games. We can’t let that happen.”
Bowers seems determined not to let that happen.
The Cougars’ 6-foot-4, 225-pound senior went inside and did his damage. Bowers was a force in the paint on both sides of the court, coming up with big baskets and rebounds.
“If my outside shot isn’t falling I have to take it inside,” Bowers said. “It wasn’t falling tonight.”
The Golden Valley student section approved of his performance, serenading him with “MVP” chants in the fourth quarter. Bowers was also effective from the free-throw line, making 7 of 8 shots.
“He’s a very good player,” Hunter said. “He’s a big kid. He’s 6-4 and he’s not afraid to play. He’s not afraid to mix it up in there.”
The game was played at a quick pace from the opening tip as both teams combined for 40 points in the first quarter. The Gauchos struggled against the Cougars relentless defensive pressure.
El Capitan turned the ball over 16 times in the first three quarters as the Cougars built a 51-33 lead with 3:35 left in the third quarter.
“That’s us being green at the guard spot,” said Gauchos coach Adrian Hurtado, whose team dropped to 16-6 overall and 5-2 in the CCC. “Most of Golden Valley’s guys are back and they’re pretty solid. The impact of this game, with the CCC championship on the line, you could see our inexperience.
“But I’m proud of our guys. They showed a lot of heart and we didn’t give up.”
The Gauchos battled back, closing the third quarter with a 13-2 run that cut the GV lead to 53-46. Dillon Greenwood (12 points), Anthony Yang (15 points) and Joe Serna all drained 3-pointers to help fuel the third-quarter run.
The Gauchos even pulled within four points twice early in the fourth quarter before the Cougars closed out the win.
El Capitan’s comeback bid was made even tougher after its top two scorers Marcus McCutchen and Greenwood picked up fourth fouls early in the fourth quarter. McCutchen finished with 18 points, 13 rebounds and three steals.
Bowers helped turn the tide for the Cougars down the stretch with a big putback that turned into a three-point play that extended the lead to 58-51 with 5:23 remaining.
After McCutchen scored inside to pull the Gauchos within 58-53, the Cougars used an 8-0 run — with five different players scoring — to extend the lead to 66-53 with 1:54 left.
Aurrion Harris was the only other GV player to finish in double-figure scoring with 11 points, but the Cougars had nine different players score.
“I was very pleased with our performance,” Hunter said. “We showed great poise. We could have panicked when the lead got to four points. We did what we had to do to survive.”
Buhach Colony 55, Patterson 46 in Atwater — Gerald Braxton scored 16 points to help the Thunder (13-10, 4-3 CCC) win their third consecutive game. Jake Abrams and Anoop Nagra both added 10 points each for Buhach Colony.
Central Valley 64, Merced 62 in Ceres — Kadin Minor hit the game-winning basket with four seconds left in th game for the Hawks (9-13, 3-4 CCC). Minor led all scorers with 22 points. The Bears dropped to 9-14 overall and 3-4 in the CCC.