A seasonlong weakness for the Caruthers High boys basketball team had become an epidemic. And this, it appeared, would cost the Blue Raiders the game of their lives — a Central Section Division V final Friday at Selland Arena.
“I was worried,” coach Josh Henderson said later.
“Ah, we were just trying to make it interesting,” said senior forward Brandon Waltrip, trying to joke about the top-seeded team’s 0-for-5 stretch at the line in the final 2 minutes against No. 2 Kern Valley of Lake Isabella.
Then the sudden reversal — two made free throws by Ranvir Johal with 12.9 seconds remaining — sealing a 45-41 win for the second section championship in program history. The other was in 1989.
“I’m glad an area of weakness became an area of strength in the end, for one kid, at least,” Henderson said with a smile. “And for a kid who’s not a good free-throw shooter to go out there and knock down two in the biggest pressure situation he’s ever been in is pretty cool.”
Waltrip, a four-year varsity player, made 10 of 17 shots and scored 26 points — including 20 in a row in one stretch for his team — for the 22-9 Raiders, who will play a Southern California Regional game Wednesday.
As many as four Central Section D-V boys and girls teams could advance to the regionals, with brackets in six divisions to be announced Sunday at the CIF state office in Los Alamitos.
It was the second section crown for Henderson, whose Hanford West boys beat Garces 88-84 in double overtime in D-II at Selland in 2013.
He then took over at Caruthers, beginning with a 22-7 season in 2014 that closed with a 75-54 loss to Coalinga, which, with 1,150 students, doubled the Raiders’ enrollment.
“We were one of the smallest D-IV schools,” Henderson said, “so it was good for us to go back down.”
Waltrip, a four-year varsity player, was developing all along.
And it all came together for him in an extraordinary 21-minute drive that saw him score all of his points from the beginning of the second quarter through the first 5 minutes of the fourth.
“He did not play a good first quarter,” Henderson said. “He had probably waited six years to get here and I think he was a little nervous. We talked in a timeout and all of a sudden he went on an absolute terror.”
Kern Valley (15-10) traveled 150 miles to face Waltrip’s blistering right hand.
The Broncs of the High Desert League — which joined the Central Section last year — led 16-10 when a Waltrip layup to begin the second quarter launched a run that saw him score 20 consecutive points for the Raiders.
“It’s a big arena with a totally different (backboard) background, so I had to hit a few shots to get it going,” Waltrip said. “Then I stayed focused, got the open shot and took it, no doubt in my mind. I was feeling it.”
No one else compared, not in a game Caruthers (2 of 23) and Kern Valley (2 of 12) combined to make 4 of 35 3-point attempts.
The Raiders outrebounded the Broncs 43-37 behind Johal (nine), Matt Edlund (nine) and Waltrip (eight). Johal, a 6-5 junior, also blocked three shots.