Just days after being the first Chico boys basketball team to win a post-season game in 15 years, the Dragons suffered a heartbreaking 67-50 loss to the Stamford Bulldogs Friday night in an area playoff game at Graham High School.
But the lopsided score of Chico’s loss in the second round of the playoffs didn’t reflect how close the game was until the final minutes of play.
With less than four minutes left in the final quarter, it was a one-possession game.
With 4:02 left, Matt Carter dropped a free throw in the bucket, and Chico trailed by a mere 48-46.
But the depth and size of Stamford finally overwhelmed the Dragons, and the Bulldogs quickly pulled away. Stamford blew the lid off late in the fourth and racked up 24 points, 19 of those coming in the final four minutes.
Chico head coach Ken Thompson knew his team was the underdog, but he applauded the effort they gave which kept Chico within striking distance or better throughout 28 of the 32 minutes of regulation.
“I’m extremely proud of our guys,” said Thompson. “We played the best game of our season tonight. We gave them everything we had.
“I told them all week they had to handle the pressure. They did a good job of that. They got (Stamford) into foul trouble.”
The first quarter was all defense. Chico played step-for-step with Stamford. A pair of scores from Hunter Clarke and Hunter York gave Chico the lead for most of the quarter. But a quick dunk on a steal by Stamford’s James Washington, followed by a layup moments later tied things up at 8-8 at the end of the quarter.
The second quarter featured several lead changes. A long three-point shot by senior Dylan Hightower tied the game 17-17 with three minutes left in the first half. Stamford responded with a flurry of shots, giving the Bulldogs a 27-22 lead going into halftime.
The struggle to hold a lead continued through the third. But Stamford entered the fourth with a 43-39 lead.
Carter hit a long two after taking a pass from Hightower, making the match 43-41 Stamford with seven minutes left in the game. After a quick score by Stamford, Hightower responded with a floating jumper from the middle of the paint to keep Chico within two, 45-43, with less than six minutes remaining.
Hightower assisted Carter again a minute-and-a-half later, leaving the game 48-45. Carter’s free-throw shot 30 seconds later, making the game 48-46, was the last time Chico was within range.
A three-pointer by Isaiah Llewellyn of Stamford made it 51-46 with 3:45 left. It was the beginning of a quick but devastating run. Over the next three minutes, Stamford racked up 16 points versus only two for Chico.
Llewellyn had another three-pointer moments later. And he put an exclamation point on the game with a steal and a dunk with only 15 seconds left.
Llewellyn led all Stamford’s scoring with 21. James Washington and Hagen Hutchinson both posted 16.
“You got to hand it to (Stamford),” Chico’s coach said. “They got hot at the right time. They hit a couple of threes when they needed it. But we gave them all they wanted until about three minutes left.”
Stamford had a deeper roster, bigger athletes and the momentum of a 13-game winning streak going into the area playoff. Chico basically played its five starters the entire night.
Chico’s three seniors led the team in scoring. Hightower posted 16, Clarke had 13 and York added eight. Matt Carter scored eight and Chris Gilmore added five.
It was a painful finish for a group of seniors who took their Dragons deeper into the post-season than they’d been in 15 years and made a fanbase believe.
“I wish I could keep playing,” Hightower said. “It really hasn’t set in that I won’t step on the court again as a Dragon.”
“I thought we fought hard,” Clarke said. “(Stamford) is a talented team. It was an honor to step on the floor with them.”
Stamford, now 17-2 and riding a 14-game winning streak, was to face Poolville in a regional playoff Tuesday night at Cisco. The starters on the Stamford basketball team were just two months removed from winning the Class 1A Division 1 state championship in football after a 35-28 win over Mart in Cowboys Stadium Dec. 20.
Thompson looks forward to next year after his team posted a 17-15 record this year.
“Our younger players saw what out seniors did this year and now know that they can carry that forward,” he said.