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Extending the Season: No Sierra Canyon-Sheldon trilogy, but three fantastic finishes

Bid for California three-peat was stopped short by COVID-19, but like Sheldon and Bishop O'Dowd, the Trailblazers have a lasting, winning memory.

2021-May-24
Video: Sierra Canyon wins at buzzer
Trailblazers advance to state in dramatic fashion.

The lights at Golden 1 Center, home of the Sacramento Kings, have never shined so bright for a high school event.
 
In each of the past two seasons, the star-studded boys basketball team from Sierra Canyon (Chatsworth, Calif.) played against hometown Sheldon (Sacramento). The energy and excitement was palpable for the games that capped the CIF's 12-game state basketball championships.

The Trailblazers brought an entourage that included former NBA players and Hollywood celebrities, who sat courtside for all to see.

They are high school basketball's version of the Showtime Lakers.

The hometown fans walked away disappointed each of the past two seasons as the flashy visitors showed more than just a little glitz — Sierra Canyon won each game handily, 76-52 and 75-62. But Huskies were hopeful that with a strong cast returning, including Marcus Bagley, younger brother of Kings' star Marvin Bagley, they would return in 2020 to flip those results.

The Huskies and Trailblazers appeared on a collision course before the coronavirus pandemic struck the country full force last week.

Sierra Canyon, featuring 5-star prospects in Ziaire Williams, Brandon Boston Jr. and Amari Bailey, plus the sons of LeBron James (Bronny James) and Dwyane Wade (Zaire Wade), captured its third straight Southern California regional title in the most dramatic way possible.
This buzzer beater by Ziaire Williams against Etiwanda would turn out to be the last shot of the season for Sierra Canyon.
Photo by Louis Lopez
This buzzer beater by Ziaire Williams against Etiwanda would turn out to be the last shot of the season for Sierra Canyon.
The Trailblazers pulled off a 63-61 stunner over Etiwanda as Williams, a McDonald's All-American, finished off a 13-0 run to close the game with a fade-away, 17-foot swish at the buzzer to set off a wild celebration.

"It was truly surreal," Sierra Canyon coach Andre Chevalier said a week after the shot. "How magical was it for us to just fight all the way back from that seemingly endless hole? And then to win it on that shot by Ziaire. Truly surreal."

Sheldon's path to the Northern California finals was similarly unlikely — perhaps even more so.

One week before the finals, the plug was pulled on the Huskies' season after a student in Sheldon's district was quarantined as a precaution for coronavirus.

Two days of public outcry and political pressure led to top-seeded Sheldon being reinstated, but the Huskies found themselves down eight late on the road in the semifinals against a very determined Dublin squad.

Yet, they fought back to win 65-64, powered by Bagley's 27 points that included an improbable go-ahead shot with 17.5 seconds remaining.

"I'm proud of all of our guys, our team," Bagley told Joe Davidson of the Sacramento Bee. "I'm happy. We've been resilient all year. Learned a lot about our team. We're built for this. That's why this game meant so much."

That win vaulted Sheldon in the semifinals against another team built on great resolve, the Bishop O'Dowd (Oakland) Dragons. Winners of 18 straight games after a 5-7 start, O'Dowd looked capable of derailing the Sierra Canyon-Sheldon trilogy.

The Dragons had one the top freshman in the country, 6-foot-8 14-year-old forward Jalen Lewis, one of the state's top juniors in Marsalis Roberson and Cal signee Monty Bowser, as well as their own motivation.

It was five years ago that Ivan Rabb sank a game-winning free throw with less than a second to play to shock Mater Dei (Santa Ana) in the state final. A book "Dragon Hoops," was supposed to be released on the anniversary of that game, and O'Dowd was bent on repeating the feat.

It would have been a tall order, but O'Dowd was at the top of its game after a decisive 13-point road win over second seed Archbishop Mitty in the NorCal semifinals.

"As far as I'm concerned, this is our last game," O'Dowd coach Lou Richie said after the game. "Tomorrow is not promised."

Turned out, Richie called it.

The morning of the delayed O'Dowd-Sheldon NorCal finals on March 12, CIF Executive Director Ron Nocetti canceled that game and the weekend's 2020 state championship games.

"While we understand this decision is disappointing, we strongly believe that the opportunity to compete in this event does not outweigh our obligation to place the health and safety of our member schools and school communities above all else," he said.

No Sheldon-Sierra Canyon trilogy. No O'Dowd epilogue. No Trailblazers' three-peat.

All three coaches lamented the disappointment — how thrilling it would have been to watch all those talented athletes under the simmering spotlight.

But each coach recognized the bigger picture — health and safety. They also found silver linings in ending on a high note.

Sheldon coach Joey Rollings focused on how his team inspired a community to keep them in the tournament, and how the Huskies reciprocated with a likewise effort, without practicing for three days.

"My kids never quit," Rollings told the Bee's Davidson. "We got to go out on an exciting note. We wish we could play another game, but we can't control that. Our kids seem to understand. They're disappointed, but kids are resilient." 

Richie had a similar message for his Dragons, who featured seven seniors.

"A lot of the kids were very upset," Richie said. "They're hurt. Disappointed. I tried to convey that they had a great season. It's disappointing it ended that way, but don't let things you can't control get you down. Besides that, when we focus on our last game, it couldn't have gone any better. If we played like that in the NorCal or state finals, we definitely would have had a shot."

Teams took their best shot at Sierra Canyon all season, Chevalier said. The Trailblazers had a giant "X" on their back from Day One.

Despite that target they finished 30-4, No. 15 in the final MaxPreps national rankings and won section and regional titles.

"It's always great to win your last game and the way we did was amazing," Chevalier said. "We would have loved to be able and play that last game to try to three-peat as state champion. But sometimes life takes priority over sport. We want our country and this world to be safe.

"All that said, going 30-4 this season, starting in China and going all over the U.S. with a big target on our back is a great testament to who we are as a team. I'm super proud of how they reacted to all they had to deal with, and then to play our best basketball at the end of the season was very special. It is a very special group."