Atwater point guard Khoi Nguyen dodges around an opponent during a game against Golden Valley High School (Samantha Schmidt).

Bird Power: Atwater rallies into first place in CCC with overtime win over Golden Valley

Ron Agostini

ATWATER—Atwater High senior Khoi Nguyen stands only 5-foot-5, but in the very near future he will cast a very long shadow on the Falcons’ recordbook.

Nguyen, a scrappy point guard and four-year varsity mainstay, is only a single victory shy of becoming the winningest basketball player in school history. And on Monday night, he scored 13 points – featuring a clutch triple in overtime -- during the Falcons’ important 52-45 victory over Golden Valley.

“I’m just trying to leave a legacy for this school that they’ll remember, just to show what kind of coach he (Kanoa Smith) is,” Nguyen said. “He does so much for this program.”

 Smith, Nguyen and the Falcons seek a fourth straight Central California Conference title, another potential first for Atwater. Monday night was pivotal. The victory nudged the Falcons (13-11, 7-2) into first place over Golden Valley (17-8, 6-3) and idle El Capitan (6-2) with three games to go, while Patterson (5-3) and Merced (5-4) lurk in this wide-open race.

Atwater, humbled by a 52-29 loss at Golden Valley on Jan. 8, appeared to be headed for more disappointment in the rematch.  Golden Valley, spearheaded by senior Braden Castleton and his 21 points, led most of the night and held a 50-43 advantage after David Denson’s 3-pointer with five minutes left in regulation.

Atwater's Ali Banks Jr. jumps to catch the ball during a game against Golden Valley (Samantha Schmidt).

That’s when the game changed. Atwater applied more defensive pressure while the Cougars cooled off on offense. Driving baskets by Nguyen keyed the comeback, and the teams were tied at 41-41 going into overtime.

A steal and layup by sophomore Ali Banks Jr. (10 points), followed by back-to-back 3-s by Nicholas Trejo and Nguyen – two of the eight seniors honored on Senior Night – put Atwater ahead to stay. The game ended on a 19-5 run by the home team.

“We knew we were going to play better,” Smith said. “We told the kids that I didn’t think we’re going to play eight bad quarters on offense against this team (Golden Valley).”

The game, originally scheduled for Friday night, was postponed to Monday because of officials’ availability. Worse, Atwater's sparkling 7-year-old new gym was being used by eighth-grade orientation Monday night, forcing the game's relocation to the Falcons’ original home next door. It marked only the third boys varsity game at Atwater’s cozy former address since the opening of the new gym.

Atwater's Dario Albeltaro grabs the rebound despite Golden Valley's Demetris Brown (Samantha Schmidt).

“We even tried to get it changed today,” said Nguyen, who felt the difference in the rematch was his team's enhanced energy.

"Everything is mental," he said. "We probably played our worst game of the season (during the first GV meeting). Coming into today, we thought they had seen the worst of us. The only way we go is up."

Golden Valley’s only regret is that, in basketball parlance, it didn’t finish. The Cougars poured in nine triples compared to Atwater’s four, and Castleton’s high-arcing  bombs threatened to define the night. Coach Derrick Jacobs lamented his team’s quick shots down the stretch, however, while Atwater rallied.

Meanwhile, GV managed only a single free throw over the final five minutes of regulation and tacked on only four points in OT. Castleton, who netted six 3-pointers, did not score after the third quarter.

“We went away from what worked,” Jacobs said. “We gotta do a better job of seeing our shooters.”

 The CCC race pounds toward a heated finish. Atwater leads but road games at Merced and El Capitan loom. Nothing is decided.

“Every game matters. It’s wide open,” Jacobs reminded. “We knew what it would come down to. This is what you live for.”

Atwater 52, Golden Valley 45 (OT)

Golden Valley      11-8-16-6-4 – 45

Atwater                 10-7-13-11-11—52

Game tied at 41-41 at end of regulation

Golden Valley (17-8, 6-3)—Braden Castleton 21, Ivzaivian Goode 7, Jeff Tangaan 6, David Denson 5, Demetris Brown 3, Ricardo Perez 2, Joey Spielman 1. Totals 15 6-11 45.

Atwater (7-2, 13-11)—Khoi Nguyen 13, Ali Banks Jr. 10, Nicholas Trejo 10, Fernando Torrez Diaz 6, Dario Albeltaro 6, Brayden Alvarado 4, Garrett Sanchez 2, James Bell 1. Totals 18 12-18 52.

3-Pt Goals—GV 9 (Castleton 6, Tangaan 2, Denson), Atwater 4 (Trejo 2, Nguyen, Alvarado). Team Fouls—GV 17, Atwater 10. Fouled Out—Perez (GV).