SACRAMENTO — Searching for answers immediately following Saturday’s CIF Division V State Championship, star Renaissance Academy guard Justin Cook could only muster up three words when asked to describe what went wrong.
“I don’t know,” a visibly shaken Cook said.
It was just one of those days for the Wildcats.
Amid all the pomp and circumstance that encompasses a state title game, Renaissance never seemed to find its comfort zone against an experienced Ross Branson team that was playing in its fourth straight state championship and, as a result, the Wildcats went down in defeat, 40-33, on Saturday in Sacramento’s Arco Arena.
The usually high-scoring Wildcats (27-4) couldn’t solve the riddle that was the swarming Branson defense and it was the Bulls (32-3) who were left standing at the end, hoisting three fingers in the air to signify their third straight state crown.
“I thought our team was ready,” said Wildcats junior guard Matt Raya, who was held scoreless in his 16 minutes of action. “I thought we were well prepared. I guess the big court and all that played a factor. They came ready to play, bottom line.”
The senior-laden Bulls held Renaissance to just 33% shooting in the contest, including long scoring droughts in both the second and the fourth quarters that proved to be too much to overcome, as the Wildcats scored a season-low 33 points, 17 fewer than their previous low.
“We just weren’t able to get the shots off that Justin and Josh [Thomas] usually take because their defense was pretty good against us,” said Wildcats 6-foot-10 junior center Anthony Stover, who finished with six points and six blocks.
Early on, it appeared the game would go down to the wire.
Branson, which closed the season on a 23-game winning streak, jumped out to an 8-5 lead, but the Wildcats clawed right back.
Junior Tremaine Tatum, who finished with 10 points and seven rebounds, converted on a driving layup and Thomas, who finished with a team-high 11 points, drained a three-pointer from the left wing to give Renaissance a 10-8 lead.
Branson’s Oliver McNally, who has verbally committed to Harvard, hit a tough layup just before the end of the quarter to knot things up at 10.
That’s when things took a turn for the worse for Renaissance.
Branson forced four turnovers in the second quarter to build a 15-10 lead before the Wildcats were finally able to get on the board with 3:34 left in the period on a Stover three-point play.
“They rotated well,” said Renaissance Coach Sid Cooke, whose team trailed 19-14 at the half. “We missed some opportunities. We had a couple chances to find guys for open layups and we missed them. We saw it, we just couldn’t do it.”
Thomas gave the Wildcats a boost in the third period, when he buried a top-of-the-key three and put back an offensive rebound to slash the Branson bulge to 25-21.
Tatum banked home a tough 15-foot jumper to pull Renaissance within three at 29-26, but McNally, who finished with 10 points, sank two free throws with 2.6 seconds left in the quarter for a 31-26 Branson lead after three.
“You’ve got to give them credit, they hit a lot of big shots with time running out,” said Cooke, whose team fell in the CIF Southern Section Division III-A semifinals this season. “Those types of shots are tough when you play defense ‘til there are four or five seconds left.”
That theme carried over into the fourth quarter when Branson’s Curtis Elijah, who finished with 11 points, opened the period by drilling a three-pointer as the shot clock expired.
It was essentially the nail in the Renaissance coffin, as the Wildcats were never able to get closer than the final seven-point margin. They didn’t score their first points of the final period until there was just 2:30 left in the game.
“I made sure that I tried to cover our basis defensively,” said Branson Coach Jonas Honick, who was coaching in his last game after 26 seasons and over 650 victories. “We spent an enormous amount of time this week on defense and on doubling down and getting some good rotations.”