Maria Carrillo wins NCS Division 2 playoff opener 72-64

Maria Carrillo center A.J. John dunks the ball over Clayton Valley Charter's Nate Kiesel in the first round of their NCS playoff in Santa Rosa on Tuesday. (JOHN BURGESS / The Press Democrat)

Maria Carrillo center A.J. John dunks the ball over Clayton Valley Charter’s Nate Kiesel in the first round of their NCS playoff in Santa Rosa on Tuesday.
(JOHN BURGESS / The Press Democrat)

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Trailing deep in what was most likely its final home game of the season, Maria Carrillo found a faster gear and pulled away from Clayton Valley Charter to advance in the North Coast Section Division 2 boys basketball playoffs.

Maria Carrillo ran its swing passing offense and picked up the pace on defense to win the second half after Clayton Valley Charter set the tempo in the first two periods. Leading the Pumas was sharpshooting Connor Wright for the 72-64 victory.

Check out game photos here

“We came out kind of sluggish. Our team pulled together. We knew this was our last home game,” said Wright, who poured in 23 points.

[RELATED: Maria Carrillo vs. Clayton Valley Charter photo gallery]

Maria Carrillo needed a strong finish to win because Clayton Valley Charter is a road-tested squad that played with discipline and determination.

“We came out hot and forced our tempo,” said point guard Alex Zavalla. “I think we sort of got tired. They hit clutch shots and we just didn’t keep up.”

Next for the Pumas is Newark Memorial, a two-time Division 2 winner and the defending champion, in the South Bay on Saturday at 1 p.m. Newark Memorial easily handled Windsor in the first round 69-39.

[NCS Division 2 playoffs bracket: See what’s next for Maria Carrillo and other Division 2 boys basketball teams from the Redwood Empire]

“We’re going to have to keep this momentum going,” Wright said.

What the Pumas have going is a balanced offense that made the extra pass and rebounded well Tuesday to get Maria Carrillo to the 20-win mark on the season.

Down by 14 points late in the second period, Maria Carrillo closed on an 11-2 run.

Playing a strong inside-outside game, the Pumas cut into the deficit with Wright swishing three shots to complete the first-half scoring.

Helping jump start the Pumas offense was a more active defensive effort. Maria Carrillo helped better to cut off ugly Eagles drives and contested more shots that produced rebounds.

“We communicate well and help and recover well,” said Maria Carrillo coach William Parker.

Maria Carrillo took back the lead for the first time since early in the contest on a drive by A.J. John with some six minutes to go in the final period. John scored eight in the quarter and 18 on the night.

The final tie followed with Zavalla scoring on a reverse layup. Clayton Valley Charter stayed close with Jon Allen scoring seven of his 20 in the the fourth quarter.

“We play well on the road,” said Clayton Valley Charter coach Eric Bamberger. “We needed to keep driving. We got tired.”

A step faster and playing with renewed confidence, Maria Carrillo sharpened its focus with the game on the line.

Highlighting the improved play was a sequence where Maria Carrillo scored twice inside on Nate King post baskets followed by a pair of 3-pointers from Dominic Garcia.

Maria Carrillo doubled its opponents’ output in the fourth quarter, putting six players in the scoring column.

“We really focused on limiting them to one possession in the second half,” Wright said.

In the first half, Clayton Valley Charter put Maria Carrillo’s defense to the test.

The drive and attack offense repeatedly found lanes for drives or kick outs and open shots. Steals helped fuel the Eagles run to a double digit lead.

“We had things going our way,” Zavalla said.

Until the hosts played with a sense of urgency.

“They’re a great team,” Wright said. “We just picked it up.”

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