WATSONVILLE — North Monterey County was very aware of Christian Quintero’s scoring ability.
Mostly because Pajaro Valley’s star junior point forward poured in 26 points in their first meeting.
“I think the first game we underestimated him a little too much,” said N.M.C. senior wing Joseph Bertao. “This time we had our game plan set, and we had the perfect guy to guard him. We locked him down.”
For 28 minutes, anyway.
Quintero exploded for 11 points over the final three minutes, but his brilliance came a few minutes too late.
The Condors were already planning their celebratory dance moves by then.
Behind a 12-0 run at the start of the fourth quarter, N.M.C. held off a late Pajaro Valley surge to secure no worse than a share of the Pacific Coast Athletic League Cypress division crown with a 55-50 win on Tuesday night.
“We had a lot of games early on in the year where’d we fall flat after a good third quarter, so I always emphasize to the guys to finish,” said N.M.C. second-year coach Patrick Kilty. “That’s how we break every huddle in the fourth quarter, ‘finish.’ It takes 32 minutes.”
Tuesday was no different.
N.M.C. (14-7, 8-0) built a 50-35 lead during the final stanza, but Quintero willed Pajaro Valley (13-9, 6-2) back within striking distance by swishing a trio of 3-pointers over the final three minutes and change.
His last 3-pointer, however, came with 2.3 seconds left, leaving he, the Grizzlies and their raucous home crowd wondering what could have been.
“Christian for them is an absolute stud — there’s nobody in this league like him,” Kilty said. “I think he’s probably the best player in this league, but we have the best team.”
N.M.C. senior forward Dulian Morelos scored a team-high 18 points, and finished with a double-double by pulling down a game-high 11 rebounds. He also dished five assists.
Bertao scored six of his 10 points during N.M.C.’s 12-0 run in the opening minutes of the fourth quarter. He also had five rebounds and three assists. He was the only other Condor in double figures, but six other N.M.C. players scored and nearly everybody made a big play down the stretch to flush last year’s 0-12 finish in league play.
Maybe no other play was bigger than Isaiah Solorio’s 3-pointer with less than three minutes left.
“We had a lot of returners from last year, so they had that taste in their mouths,” Kilty said. “They were tired of losing. We were tired of losing. The first day of practice I reminded them what our record was, and we needed to change what people thought about us.”
Quintero sat on the bench for the better half of the night because of foul trouble. He picked up his second foul early in the second quarter, and was called for his fourth midway through the third.
He reentered at the start of the fourth quarter, but Pajaro Valley turned it over on its first three possessions of the frame.
N.M.C. turned all three takeaways into points.
Quintero finished with a game-high 25 points and also had eight rebounds and five steals, but had to watch the Condors rush the court in celebration of their first league championship since the 2014-15 season.
“Without a win, that doesn’t matter,” said Quintero, who entered Tuesday night averaging 26.5 points per league game. “All those points, it doesn’t matter without a win.”
A win would have given the Grizzlies a shot at capturing their first-ever league title, and earning the PCAL-Cypress’ lone automatic berth to the Central Coast Section playoffs. Instead, Pajaro Valley will have to apply as an at-large team, and hope it has accumulated enough notoriety to make its third straight postseason berth.
Pajaro Valley coach Andre Bailey said the Grizzlies could have very well been the ones celebrating if they had handled their business on Tuesday.
Blowing an eight-point, fourth-quarter lead during their first meeting with N.M.C. in Castroville also hurts.
“We just had a lot of bad juju here tonight,” Bailey said. “When we’re there mentally, we can play with anybody, but when things like this happen it makes it hard to win.”
Pajaro Valley jumped out to a 13-2 lead early, but N.M.C. sliced into the deficit by picking apart the Grizzlies’ zone defense with precision interior passing and offensive rebounding.
Twelve of the Condors’ 20 field goals came off assists, and they finished with nine offensive rebounds.
N.M.C. led 27-23 at the half, and it entered the fourth quarter up 38-35.
It hit another speed during its closing flurry, most of which was produced by extra-effort plays.
“That’s the attitude of North County kids,” Kilty said. “We work for everything that we do. In the classroom, in the court, in the community, that’s our motto. We come from people that work hard every day, and that’s the message that the kids want to send.”
Editor's Note: This article will publish in the Feb. 8 edition of the Register-Pajaronian.