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Apollos lock up Skyhawks in third

by: TIMES PHOTO: MATT SINGLEDECKER - Sunset senior guard Mikey Fey pulls up in the lane for a mid-range jumper in the second quarter of the Apollos win over Southridge. The sleeping giant that is the Sunset boys' basketball team has rediscovered its swagger and wised up to what's going to make it successful long term.

Defending with dogged effort on the perimeter and protecting the rim like a possessive St. Bernard safeguarding a family of four, Sunset knuckled down on Southridge in the third quarter of its Metro League contest, holding the Skyhawks scoreless for the final 4:30 of the period.

Armed with a 41-31 advantage, the Apollos contained the no-quit Skyhawks long enough in the fourth to pull out a 53-49 victory on Wednesday to take sole possesion of first place in Metro.

And to think, all it took was a return to the dogmatic Metro League to rouse the accomplished Apollos from their admitted preseason cobwebs and answer the bell with an appetite for conflict and defensive acuteness.

“We're a good team. We have a lot of talented guys, but that doesn't really matter if no one plays hard,” said senior post Tyler Gutierrez. “You have to play hard and play together. That's how you're going to win basketball games, not just through talent.”

“If you don't bring it with your energy and toughness every night, you're not going to win in Metro,” added senior point guard Taylor Harris. “That's what makes it so tough. No matter how good you are, you have to bring it every game. I thought we fought hard tonight.”

Guitierrez, Harris and defensive ace Jeff Bieber turned the third quarter into an unadulterated block party, imposing their Pterodactyls-like wingspans on Southridge's shot attempts inside while discontinuing dribble drives with sliding, quick feet.

Guitierrez contested every shot in his vicinity, racing over from his helpside position to fly above the rim and swat away shots with his 6-foot-8 frame. Harris and Bieber got in on the action too, oftentimes coming from behind on a Southridge guard to plant a shot against the glass. After Michael Seng's lay-up with 4:10 to go, Southridge didn't score another point until a minute into the fourth quarter.by: TIMES PHOTO: MATT SINGLEDECKER - Sunset senior forward Jeff Bieber tries to drive past Southridges Isaiah Reel in the first quarter of the Apollos win on Wednesday.

“This is what we live for,” said Gutierrez. “It's competing against a good team and whoever wins, wins. But the competition of it and the high level of athletes that are out there, it's just fun.”

Sunset also adjusted and mixed up its pick-and-roll coverages on Southridge's AJ Monterossi, sometimes forcing the talented point guard out far beyond the three-point line with rigid hedges by Gutierrez that made Monterossi scoop up the rock in non-threatening scoring territory. In other instances, Harris or Bieber shot under the ball screen and recovered in time to get a hand in Monterossi's face as he hoisted jumpers at the rim.

“He's a great player, but we were giving him a hard time,” said Harris of Monterossi. “When we play as hard as we did, our length and size really show up.”

Sunset's bent to buckle down and buy in on defense, seeped over to the offensive end too, as an eager Bieber badgered home an offensive board after two tries to go up 36-31. Then, Bieber picked through the Skyhawks and found Harris solo at the top of the key for three. Harris set up Gutierrez’s lay-up with 10 seconds left with a slick crossover and spoon feed to his senior post to give Sunset its biggest lead of the game, 41-31.

Guitierrez led the Apollos with 15 points. Bieber tacked on 11, and Harris had five. Willy Pflug made two threes in the first half for Sunset.

“They were physical,” said Southridge's Parker Gaddis of Sunset. “Coach told us they were going to come and bring the intensity since we'd just come off beating Jesuit. We knew it was going to be intense. We came out and knew it was going to be a dog fight. They just got a few more punches in than we did, but we'll recover.”

After a rise-and-fall preseason during which Sunset showed glimpses of being a state title contender, it appears the light is back on and burning inside the minds of the Apollos. Their effort is starting to match their talent level, a frightening sentiment for both the Metro League and rest of the state.

“We're finally starting to play well again,” said Harris. “Ever since the Sherwood game (a 59-49 loss) when we kind of blew it, our practices have been better. Our games have been better. We have so much more energy. We're not necessarily playing smarter, but we just play hard, which is just as important. That's really helping us. I feel like we're finally peaking. We just have to keep it going and make sure we don't have any more dips.”

Despite being locked down in the third quarter, Southridge mounted a brave counter attack in the fourth, when Gaddis swished a three from the right corner, and Griff Christiansen converted an old-fashioned three-point play that pulled Southridge within 50-47 with 1:13 to go.

“I thought we fought back well,” said Gaddis, who led the Skyhawks with 11 points. “We just have to capitalize at certain moments, and I think that'll help us. We can only grow from here. We gotta move on to the next one.”

Two Sunset misses at the free-throw line set up a final shot attempt for Southridge, down 52-49, with 19 seconds left. The Skyhawks tried to run the sharpshooting Seng off a baseline double screen, but Harris and Mikey Fey snuffed out the play from the start. Fey's busy hands tipped Grant Giraldi's entry pass to the wing, and the senior Apollo guard was able to corral the loose ball with eight seconds remaining.

“We have to capitalize on opportunities that we have,” said Christiansen. “We had a bunch of good looks there toward the end. We just have to execute the plays we draw up in the timeout. We had a couple mixups from some guys, but we just have to get back to practice and work on it.”

Fey canned one of two free throws to go up 53-49 and snatched Southridge's subsequent miss in the middle of heavy paint traffic to seal Sunset's fifth straight win.by: TIMES PHOTO: MATT SINGLEDECKER - Southridge junior Isaiah Reel flies around Sunsets Tyler Guitierrez for two in the second half of the Skyhawks loss to the Apollos.

“We just fought back and gave ourselves a chance to win at the end of the game,” said Christiansen, who had 10 points, including two three's. “In the first half, they had a lead, but we started to get down and play some defense. We started to rebound.”

It didn't help Southridge's cause that star point guard AJ Monterossi rolled his right ankle midway through the fourth quarter and wasn't able to go in crunch time. Plus, Gaddis — who scored eight of his 11 points in the first quarter — was also stapled to the bench with five fouls.

“That always hurts,” said Gaddis of Monterossi's absence. “AJ was struggling with his jump shot, but at any time, he can start heating up. It's not good that he got injured, but it was good that other guys had to step up. It's a good experience for guys. And, if we can compete there at the end without AJ, then when he's with us, I think we can do big things.”

The game's outcome shouldn't have come down to the Skyhawks' botched last possesion, Gaddis said. Giving up offensive rebounds on the glass and letting Sunset's size negatively sway their ability to finish, specifically in the third, was just as detrimental to Southridge's fate.

Southridge had a 23-22 halftime lead thanks to Gaddis' breakout performance and a solid floor game from Monterossi. Isaiah Reel was active on the glass, and Christiansen was solid in the pick-and-pop game with Monterossi despite having to guard Guitierrez down low.

“We can't look at it as just the plays at the end,” noted Gaddis. “There was stuff we could've done earlier in the game, so it didn't get to that point. It's always good to win games in league, but if we can learn now and hit our stride when it really matters, we'll be fine.”by: TIMES PHOTO: MATT SINGLEDECKER - Southridge senior point guard Grant Giraldi tries to get past Sunsets Michael Kearns on the baseline in the fourth quarter on Wednesday.

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