WATSONVILLE — Coach Marcus Northcutt said his Watsonville Wildcatz tend to play better as the game progresses.
“We get in a better rhythm as the game goes on,” the second-year coach said. “That’s the way it’s been the last three or four games.”
Go ahead and add Thursday night to that list.
Down 22-11 at the end of the first quarter, Watsonville had to rally over the last three quarters to fight its way back into the Pacific Coast Athletic League Santa Lucia division title chase with a 52-46 upset of Oakwood.
With the win, the Wildcatz improved to 16-7 overall and forced a tie at the top of the PCAL-SL with the Hawks. Both teams now hold a 7-2 record in league play heading into their final game.
Quite a turnaround for a team that last year won all of three games and finished 0-12 in league play.
“They really wanted to hold their heads up high [this year],” Northcutt said. “I always make the joke to them, ‘hey, we play basketball in Watsonville not just soccer.’ They kind of took that on.”
Watsonville can clinch its first league title since the 2010-11 season with a win at King City on Monday, or an Oakwood loss against Marina on Saturday.
“We’re really hyped up, and we’re trying to get the win on Monday,” said Watsonville sophomore forward Donovan Mendoza. “We’re trying to get to the top, and leave a legacy for the rest of the teams that come after.”
Mendoza scored a team-high 15 points for the Wildcatz. The 6-foot-2 defensive anchor also swished a clutch corner 3-pointer in the fourth quarter, and made a key rejection in the closing minutes of the game to help Watsonville hold on.
Seniors Michael Camargo (13) and Lucas Ruiz (10), who along with Daniel Knight were honored for senior night before the game, combined for 23 points.
Junior Fabian Rodriguez chipped in nine points, six of which came on a pair of makes from deep during the final stanza.
“We were so locked in to getting that ‘W’ that nothing else mattered,” Rodriguez said. “We picked it up and really focused on playing our best basketball.”
Watsonville had to.
Especially after the inauspicious start.
Watsonville erased the early 11-point deficit with defense and effort in the second quarter, as the Wildcatz outscored Oakwood 15-4 in the second frame to head into the half tied at 26-all.
The Hawks led for the majority of the third, but Watsonville’s defense perked up once again and strung together enough stops to make a late push.
Mendoza’s steal and layup with a little more than a minute left in the third quarter gave Watsonville a 39-37 lead. Ruiz, too, came up with a key steal and bucket a few seconds later to send the Black and Gold into the fourth quarter with a 41-37 advantage.
Oakwood thrice cut Watsonville’s lead to one possession in the fourth quarter, but the Wildcatz pitched a shutout over the final two minutes and change to hang on.
“We played with intensity,” Mendoza said of the fourth quarter. “Our brothers off the bench really stepped up and brought the intensity. We really fed off of that.”
Editor's Note: This article will publish in the Feb. 15 edition of the Register-Pajaronian.