SANTA ANA — Apparently, even juggernauts get nervous.
A heavy favorite to capture the CIF Southern Section Division 6 championship before the playoffs even began, the Renaissance Academy boys' basketball team still wasn't immune to the jitters that come with the pressure of being one win away from the ultimate goal.
"We're not used to playing in front of big crowds," Wildcats senior guard Vince De Guzman said. "It was just a lot of nerves."
In the end, it made for little more than a tight first quarter, though, as Renaissance had opened up a double-digit lead by halftime and closed the door for good in the first minutes of the fourth quarter.
Led by 19 points from Jessy Cantinol and 18 from De Guzman, the top-seeded Wildcats' decimation of Division 6 was completed on Saturday morning with a 67-45 win over third-seeded California Lutheran at Mater Dei High in Santa Ana. It's the first-ever CIF title for the program, which has been a playoff mainstay across multiple divisions for the better part of a decade and a three-time finalist from 2005-07, but never had been able to nail down the big one until now.
"It feels great after four years of being here expecting to get a championship," said Wildcats senior guard Troy Fontanilla (11 points).
For Renaissance Academy Coach Sid Cooke, it's been a considerably longer odyssey.
"It was hard, but I'm glad we got back," said Cooke, the architect of the program, who is in his 11th year. "Sometimes I thought we would never get back."
The first quarter saw the Wildcats (24-6), who had steamroller their playoff opposition by an average margin of 25 points en route to the title game, take a quick 4-0 lead but proceed to struggle offensively against the C-Hawks' zone defense. As shots rattled in and out and movement grew stagnant, Renaissance scored just three points over the next three and a half minutes and trailed, 7-6, after the C-Hawks' Ben Schober finished off a fast break started by a long rebound of a De Guzman miss from the outside. There would be a tie and three more lead changes before the Wildcats ended the quarter with a slim 13-10 lead.
"It was a slow start, a little jitters, but we just had to get back into playing our game," said Cooke, whose team is likely to receive a berth today when pairings are released for the CIF-State Division 5 tournament. "The guys got a little down, but I said, 'Just keep playing your game, keep doing what you've been doing all year.'"
At the onset of the second quarter, Cal Lutheran (20-4) began to fall behind in the face of too many Wildcats steals, too many extended Renaissance possessions — thanks to eight first-half offensive rebounds — and too much Cantinol.
The senior center was a beast inside, grabbing two offensive boards and bullying his way to the hole at will through clusters of blue jerseys throughout the first half en route to finishing with 12 points in the first half, which led all scorers at intermission.
"We knew we had to do it for [Cooke] and all he did for us these four years," Cantinol said.
Renaissance's key 9-0 run to begin the second quarter started with a pair of free throws by Cantinol, who was fouled while attempting a putback. Marquise Mosley (11 points) then knocked down a three-pointer, the Wildcats' first make from distance of the game.
Cantinol followed with a drive to the basket through a crowd before nabbing a steal at midcourt and feeding De Guzman for a layup that made it 22-10 with 4:45 left in the first half.
Cal Lutheran didn't score until center Ryan Smith's jump hook with 4:19 to play in the second.
"We just were patient," De Guzman said. "We knew the nerves would calm down and we would start hitting our shots because we were getting good looks at it."
The Wildcats' full-court press began to break down the C-Hawks in the second quarter. Cal Lutheran had nine turnovers in the first half and finished with 18, including three steals apiece for Cantinol and Gerrick Uneau.
"We told them we can't have 20 turnovers and win a game and that's pretty much what we had," C-Hawks Coach Dave Peter said. "I think in the heat of the moment, we just stopped moving and we had a lot of guys who were standing around instead of moving to the ball and screening for each other.
"We worked all week on the pressure, it was just one of those things where in the big-game stage our guys just didn't remember to move their feet as much as they should have."
Renaissance led, 30-20, at halftime and went on a 12-3 run to begin the third as Cantinol continued to abuse his counterpart, the 6-foot-8 Smith (13 points), who began the third period with three fouls.
Cantinol opened the period with a deft spin move around Smith for a layup and repeated the move two minutes in to give Renaissance a 37-22 lead.
"I'm happy for him, he's a good kid and he's come a long way," Cooke said of Cantinol, who also had nine rebounds and four assists. "He's been taking the heat, the battles, double teams and he finally stepped up big."
But just when the Wildcats appeared on the verge of blowing the game wide open after going up, 42-23, at the 5:15 mark on a Moseley three-pointer, Cal Lutheran got up off the mat.
Doing what no other team had been able to do in these playoffs — put a dent in a big second-half Wildcats lead — the C-Hawks mounted a 9-0 run to pull within 42-32 with 2:20 left in the third.
"We were in for a dogfight when they cut it to 10," De Guzman said.
The Wildcats closed the quarter on a 6-1 run and reeled off seven straight unanswered to start the fourth. Mosley stole the ball and pushed it ahead to Fontanilla for a layup before an Uneau steal led to an easy layup for Mosley.
"We knew what we had to do [on defense]," Cantinol said. "We like the full-court, half-court press. We're all in good shape so we don't have trouble running it."
Finally, De Guzman drained a three-pointer on a dish from Mosley set up by an offensive rebound by Cantinol to give the Wildcats a 56-33 lead less than two minutes into the fourth.
"We knew if we didn't execute they were going to cut it down more and more, but we fought and made them turn the ball over," De Guzman said. "We noticed that they couldn't handle our pressure. We made adjustments to press the ball and they turned it over."
In addition to getting a title for their coach, the championship capped an emotional season for the Wildcats, who dedicated the campaign to De Guzman's late father Napoleon, who passed away over the summer.
"It feels great to win it for [Cooke] and for Vince's dad, Napoleon," Fontanilla said.