Branson defense befuddles Wildcats

SACRAMENTO — There haven’t been too many times this season when an opponent has been able to knock the Renaissance Academy basketball team off the path it wanted to go down.

The Wildcats have the size, strength and athleticism to push almost anyone around in almost any situation.

Unfortunately for the Wildcats, Ross Branson wasn’t just anyone and Saturday’s CIF Division V State Championship at Arco Arena in Sacramento wasn’t just any game.

Using a suffocating and active defense, the Bulls grounded the taller and more athletic Wildcats, forcing them to abandon their normal attacking style of play and play the Bulls’ more deliberate, methodical approach to the game.

And as a result, Branson captured its third straight state championship.

There were no acrobatic dunks that Renaissance fans have grown accustom to seeing. There were no flashy passes for easy layups. And while center Anthony Stover was able to swat six shots, none ignited the fastbreaks that helped the Wildcats pile up 27 victories this season.

It was a different type of ballgame and not the one Renaissance wanted to play.

“There was a lot of frustration throughout the whole team,” Stover said. “We usually can run and get up and down and finish it when we get inside. But weren’t able to do that. We weren’t able to get it inside at all.”

Renaissance’s main edge was supposed to be its height, as the Wildcats boast three players over 6-7 compared to none from Branson. But, it was the Bulls who won the rebounding edge, 25-24.

Every time the 6-10 Stover touched the ball on the block, he was immediately trapped by two defenders. Only twice was he able to fight through for hoops.

And when Stover did touch the ball, it was generally a few feet out from the deep position he was cemented in during most of the season.

“I think it was just a matter of preparation,” said Branson Coach Jonas Honick, whose team only allowed 36.8 points per game this year. “We knew what we wanted to do. We’ve been practicing doubling the post from the first day of the season.”

Honick said Branson’s No. 1 goal entering the game was to limit Renaissance star guard Justin Cook, who entered the game averaging 18.7 points per game.

The Bulls did more than limit Cook, they nearly held him scoreless. Cook was not able to convert a field goal all game, as his three points all came on free throws.

Cook finished 0 for six from the field and had a hand in his face every time he fired.

“From watching film, I knew his tendencies and what he wanted to do,” said Branson’s Ryan McGuigan, who guarded Cook most of the contest. “I thought we were one step ahead the entire game.”

And while it wasn’t the picturesque ending Cook wanted, he concluded his career as one of the area’s most decorated players ever. He led his team to three straight CIF title games, a state championship game and is a safe be to be a four-time All-Area and All-CIF player.


 DYLAN KRUSE covers sports. He can be reached at (818) 637-3252 or dylan.kruse@latimes.com.

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