There was a stretch in last Saturday’s home playoff game when Gavilan College men’s basketball coach Dallas Jensen thought, ‘This can’t be it? This can’t be it?’ The No. 3 seed Rams were getting thoroughly outplayed by No. 14 seed American River in a California Community College NorCal contest, seemingly on their way to a premature end to their season.
If Gavilan had the heart of a champion, it was time to show it. And that’s exactly what the Rams did. Deion Ellis finished with 29 points and 10 rebounds, and Xander Bowers and Ibn Zaid had 15 points apiece as Gavilan roared back to win going away, 78-69. The Rams advance to host No. 6 Santa Rosa on Saturday at 7 p.m., with the winner advancing to the State Final Eight in Ventura. Gavilan, which has never advanced to the State Final Eight, was in a similar position a year ago only to lose to a ultra-talented Fresno City College team on the road.
This time, the Rams have a home game by virtue of earning one of the top four seeds in the NorCal playoffs. Gavilan set four goals for this season: win the conference championship (again), earn a top four seed, advance to the Final Eight and win the state championship. So far, so good.
“We’re trying to check off all of the boxes, but focusing on one box at a time,” Jensen said. “Hopefully, we’ll be fortunate enough to knock off that third box Saturday night.”
To check off that third box, the Rams will have to vanquish Santa, Rosa, which is one of the traditional powerhouse programs in Northern California. The Bear Cubs won the state championship in 2014 and was a State Final Eight participant a year ago. They feature Skylar Chavez, a 6-foot-5 wing player who Jensen Jensen said is averaging 28 to 29 points per game and has offers from Utah, Colorado and Pepperdine.
“Quite frankly, he’s probably the best player in Northern California,” Jensen said. “I think we’ll have our hands full, and we’ll do things to try to limit his touches, but the reality is at the end of the day he’ll get his fair share of opportunities. They are well balanced and everyone on that roster can shoot from the perimeter.”
The Rams could have the answer, though. They’re balanced, athletic and long, a couple of the many reasons why they’ve won back-to-back Coast Conference South Division titles. Gavilan used its talents to employ a 2-2-1 press trap in the second half, creating multiple turnovers and sparking the team’s once dormant offense to life. The Rams trailed 44-30 at halftime to American River before outscoring it 48-25 in the final 20 minutes of action.
“We got turnovers and got out into transition, which is where we’re effective,” Jensen said. “Once the ball goes into the basket, it lifts you up on defense, too. In the first half, we were missing point-blank opportunities, whether it was at the rim or on the perimeter, it didn’t matter. That kind of hurt us on the other end of the floor after a while. Guys were a bit defeated and let them carry it into their defensive play.”
Jensen said Bowers, the former Christopher High standout, along with Ellis kept the team in the game and prevented a full-fledged blowout early.
“As crazy as it sounds, it could’ve been a lot worse,” Jensen said. “I thought their presence on the interior was great, and we were able to get a couple of easy buckets to get us going. They did just enough to keep us within striking distance.”
The Rams literally ran American River out of their gym in the second half, to the tune of a 48-25 advantage. The second half was unique in that Jensen never made a single substitution. That’s how well the group was playing together.
“I could coach for another 30 years and never have that happen again,” Jensen said.
The 6-5 Ellis was phenomenal inside, as every time he touched the ball in the paint, something good happened. Bowers’ relentless energy and effort on both ends of the floor were contagious, and he has a knack for getting the crowd revved up, Jensen said. Potts, a 6-6 sophomore, had a team-best 12 rebounds and helped move the ball, push tempo and apply tremendous pressure defensively.
“He’s a guy who doesn’t get the pub, but is as solid as anyone out there,” Jensen said. “He’s an old-school point guard who makes all the right basketball plays. To have the ball in the hands of someone like him who is a great decision maker really makes my job a lot easier. He kept on finding the hot hand.”
Patrick Fisher was also instrumental in the win, finishing with a team-high seven assists in 33 minutes of action. The American River game was quite a roller coaster for the Rams, whose season looked to be on the brink before they roared back to win in impressive fashion.
“Before I could go in the locker room (after the game), I had to walk around for a couple of minutes to regain my composure,” Jensen said. “I was emotionally exhausted after that game. The camaraderie on this team is phenomenal. The fact the players were able to dig deep and come back is really exciting.”
Of course, the excitement level would ratchet up a notch if Gavilan manages to beat Santa Rosa. When the Rams lost in this same round a year ago, Jensen had to figure out what it would take for them to reach the State Final Eight. He looked to a program up north in City College of San Francisco—the premier men’s basketball community college in the state—to find the answer.
“I really try to model to an extent what we’re doing here tailored off to what City College of San Francisco does,” Jensen said. “Now obviously, their talent and athleticism is second to none in California, but what I really looked at was their versatility and their athleticism. They have guys who are not only able to play multiple spots on the floor, but defend multiple spots on the floor.”
Jensen has brought in back-to-back star-studded recruiting classes filled with talented players who can guard multiple positions on the floor, guards with length and forwards with good height and size.
“Our starting lineup is really unique because we can defend man to man, but we can also switch everything, which enables us to apply pressure to anybody and really avoid mismatches on the floor, and I think that is exhausting to opponents,” Jensen said.
Indeed, one only has to look at last year’s NBA playoffs to see what Jensen is talking about. The teams that give the Warriors trouble are the ones that can switch without having to worry about potential mismatches. The Rockets had a slew of athletic and long wing players who could defend multiple positions and thrive.
“The beauty of our depth is our one can guard a five and our five can guard a one,” Jensen said.
Coaches are notorious for studying game film/video, and it didn’t take Jensen long to start watching the complete Santa Rosa game clips from this season. In fact, Jensen started watching video a couple of hours after the American River game.
“Isn’t it so sad,” Jensen said half-jokingly.
The second-year Gavilan coach knows it’ll take a supreme effort to beat Santa Rosa, and yet one gets the sense the Rams are primed to do just that. They’ve lost only two times all season, one to defending state champion CCSF and the other to Allan Hancock, which made the Southern California playoffs. A stickler for focusing on the present, Jensen wouldn’t be human if he didn’t think about what it would mean for the program to reach Ventura, the site of this year’s state championships.
“It would not only be a great experience for the players, but also a unique opportunity for the program and the school,” Jensen said.