Benefield: Piner boys start league play with a bang

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Piner High junior Isaac Torres had a 10-point third quarter to make a big lead a truly insurmountable one as the Prospectors ran away with the North Bay League-Oak Division boys basketball opener against Montgomery 54-28 on Tuesday night.

Piner’s relentless defense was the theme of the night, holding the Vikings to a paltry four points in the opening quarter. No Viking scored more than six points on the night.

“I thought we played great team defense. I thought we played really hard,” Piner coach Mike Erickson said.

The win moves Piner to 12-2 overall and 1-0 in league. Montgomery drops to 7-7 overall and 0-1 in league. And they had already lost once to this Piner squad — a 57-43 Prospector win on Dec. 13 in the Arcata Invitational tournament.

Erickson said in that one, the Vikings’ big man, sophomore Nolan Bessire, did a number on them, so they doubled down Tuesday — literally. The Prospector defense, already legendarily tough, collapsed on Bessire every time he touched the ball in the paint. The Prospectors forced the Vikings to make the outside shot and they couldn’t come up with anything.

The Vikings hit just two three-pointers all night.

“They are athletic enough, quick enough and well coached that they can kind of pressure the ball in the perimeter and when the balls gets in they can scrap down and then get back to the perimeter,” Montgomery coach Zac Tiedeman said. “They put so much pressure on you throughout the whole game that even when you have a good look, you are used to having someone in your face the whole time.”

Bessire led the Vikings with six points and Devin Ramirez and Nico Bounkhoun each had five points.

But this one was all Prospectors from the opening tip.

“They jumped on us early,” Tiedeman said. “Once they got that lead, I think they smelled the blood, I guess you could say.”

The Vikings went to a 2-3 zone defense with six minutes to play in the second quarter and it seemed to staunch the bleeding — at least temporarily. They forced two quick turnovers, only to cough up the rewards under return pressure from the Prospectors.

Cole Hallin hit a bucket to pull the Vikings to a deficit of just 20-10 with 4:30 to play, but the Prospectors found a couple of cracks in the zone.

“We haven’t seen a whole lot of zone this year,” Erickson said. “A lot of times with the zone, if you are making shots it looks like you’ve solved it.”

It was 25-14 at the half, but Torres’ scorching third quarter blew the game wide open.

The Prospectors opened the third quarter with a full-court press and Torres went to town. He scored six straight points, including a stolen inbounds passed that he converted for a layup to make it 34-17 with 4:16 to play.

Then Cam Chanta got a steal that he dished to — yep — Torres, who laid it in for his 10th point of the quarter. By the end of those eight minutes, it was Prospectors 42, Montgomery 19.

“He has a way to disrupt the game,” Erickson said of Torres. “He’s got good instincts and he’s quick, he’s lanky. We press with him out front, he knocks a lot of balls loose. He’s a good on-ball guy for sure.”

With less than four minutes to play, both teams pulled their starters and it was over.

“It’s a gut punch, obviously,” Tiedeman said. “But it’s one game.”

Piner came into the game ranked fourth in the North Coast Section among Division 3 squads. Montgomery sits at 13th among Division 2 teams.

Last season Montgomery, a seemingly perennial power, finished 7-3 in league — just ahead of Piner at 6-4.

The three-game series between the two squads last season was entertaining. Montgomery won the first meeting on Dec. 21, 43-39. Piner returned the favor on Jan. 18, winning 38-34, and Montgomery won the rubber match Feb. 6 in the first round of the Oak Division championship, 50-41.

But this one didn’t give any hint of an opening for the Vikings. The Prospectors simply looked like too much Tuesday.

“It was a huge win,” Torres said. “It’s a big confidence boost because Montgomery, that’s a local team, beating them by this much is huge for the start of the season, our league.”

Prospectors guard Adonis Gutierrez led all scorers with 19.

“We are coming in hot this year,” he said. “We’ve got a bunch of fast, athletic players, they come out long. We are long, quick. It’s going to be a fun year.”

Erickson didn’t go that far. Not yet. The Oak Division is going to be rife with steep competition and likely more than an upset or two. After Tuesday night’s result, Montgomery very well could be looking to exact revenge and shake up the standings as league plays out.

So Erickson was pleased but not too pleased.

“It was a good win. I think they are improving, they are working hard, playing together,” he said. “They know they’ve got to get better, though.”

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield. Podcasting on iTunes and SoundCloud, “Overtime with Kerry Benefield.”

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