Five days ago, the bull ride began with Centennial High trailing by 18 points in the third quarter at Bullard.
That's when Cody Kessler, the powerful junior on an otherwise tiny team, lowered his shoulder, blasted to the rack and scored 21 of his 47 points in the fourth quarter to rally the fifth-seeded Golden Hawks past the No. 4 Knights 71-68 in the Central Section boys basketball Division I quarterfinals.
Tuesday night, the ride began again with Centennial trailing top-seeded Buchanan by 25 points and 41/2 minutes remaining in the second quarter.
The lead was hacked to 12 by halftime, 10 at the end of three quarters, eight early in the fourth and six with 2 minutes left.
"Getting down by 25 is way too hard to come back against a team like this," Kessler said after having his 37 points fall short in a 79-71 decision.
Leading 74-68 with 46 seconds remaining, the Bears (22-6) received two free throws apiece from Sam Milhous and Alex Fertig in the next 11 seconds to secure their first D-I title appearance in the program's 18-year history.
It will unfold at 8 p.m. Saturday at Selland Arena against No. 2 Clovis East (25-7) in the sixth All-Tri-River Athletic Conference championship matchup of the decade.
Buchanan and Clovis East split in epic TRAC duels -- the Bears winning 81-80 at home Feb. 16 after losing 72-63 on the Timberwolves' floor Jan. 30. And it was in the game two weeks ago that Jackson Carbajal suffered a second-quarter concussion -- unknown for certain at the time -- yet scored 24 of his 26 points in the second half.
He returned Tuesday, swishing a 3-pointer on his first attempt from the right baseline 15 seconds into the game. He ended the quarter with a determined, twisting, coast-to-coast drive, beating four Hawks defenders along the way for a buzzer-beating shot that made it 27-10.
"It felt great to come out and hit my first 3," said the Sacramento State-bound guard, who finished with 20 points.
Milhous matched the 20, Fertig had 13 and Ryan Swain added 10 among nine Buchanan scorers.
Southwest Yosemite League champion Centennial (19-11) had only six players score, but oh for No. 31.
"He's a pretty special athlete," Bears coach Eric Swain said of Kessler. "Boy, as soon as he gets it, you know what's going to happen with the basketball."