SACRAMENTO â€” 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.
â€œI don’t know,â€ 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.
â€œI thought our team was ready,â€ said Wildcats junior guard Matt Raya, who was held scoreless in his 16 minutes of action. â€œI thought we were well prepared. I guess the big court and all that played a factor. They came ready to play, bottom line.â€
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.
â€œWe just weren’t able to get the shots off that Justin and Josh [Thomas] usually take because their defense was pretty good against us,â€ 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.
â€œThey rotated well,â€ said Renaissance Coach Sid Cooke, whose team trailed 19-14 at the half. â€œWe 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.â€
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.
â€œYou’ve got to give them credit, they hit a lot of big shots with time running out,â€ said Cooke, whose team fell in the CIF Southern Section Division III-A semifinals this season. â€œThose types of shots are tough when you play defense ‘til there are four or five seconds left.â€
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.
â€œI made sure that I tried to cover our basis defensively,â€ said Branson Coach Jonas Honick, who was coaching in his last game after 26 seasons and over 650 victories. â€œWe spent an enormous amount of time this week on defense and on doubling down and getting some good rotations.â€