Nathan Mollat/Daily Journal
Sequoia’s N’jai LeBlanc Jr. poured in 33 points, including 21 in the first half, to lead the
Cherokees to a PAL tournament first-round win over visiting Westmoor.
The Sequoia boys’ basketball team finished one game behind Peninsula Athletic League South Division champion Menlo-Atherton during the regular season.
With the Central Coast Section tournament seeding meeting Sunday, there is still one more ring for the Cherokees to try and grab: the PAL tournament title.
“We missed out on (winning a league title),” said Sequoia guard N’Jai LeBlanc Jr. “[Winning a PAL tournament title] is the next biggest thing.”
Hosting Westmoor, the No. 3 seed out of the North, in the first round Thursday night, both teams came out firing, going up and down the court in the first half at breakneck speed that left those in attendance exhausted as the teams traded baskets.
When the dust finally settled with the halftime horn, Sequoia, the No. 2 seed in the South, clung to a 48-46 lead.
In the second half, however, the Cherokees turned the screws defensively, holding the Rams to just 15 points over the final two quarters as they pulled away for an impressive 85-61 win.
“We had to lock down on defense,” said LeBlanc, who scored 21 points, including five 3s, of his game-high and career-high 33 in the first half. He finished with seven 3s for the game.
“We just tried to throw everything at them (defensively) — zones, traps.”
The Cherokees will now face the North’s top seed in Half Moon Bay at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Hillsdale. The Cougars beat Aragon, the No. 4 team in the South, 84-53.
LeBlanc had seven points in the opening quarter before going off in the second, scoring 14 of his team’s 25 points in the frame. He opened with a pull-up jumper off a steal to give his team a 25-22 lead. His second 3 of the game broke a 27-all tie, his third 3 put the Cherokees up 35-32. His fourth, with 3:17 to play in the half, gave Sequoia a 38-35 advantage. His fifth trey of the half tied the game at 46.
“He’s been doing this all year long,” Lauese said. “Any shot he puts up is a good shot.”
LeBlanc said he got into a good rhythm during pre-game shoot around and he carried that into the game.
“N’jai was kicking our ass,” said Westmoor coach Herb Yaptinchay. “He had a monster game.”
But LeBlanc was hardly a one-man show, as he was just one of four Sequoia players to score in double figures. Guard Pedram Attari scored 11 of his 14 points in the second half, center Ziggy Lauese finished with 13 points and game-high nine rebounds, while wing Zach Bene added 12, including a fast-break dunk to punctuate the game with just over three minutes left in the game.
“N’jai can’t carry the team by himself,” Coach Lauese said. “There were other guys who made key 3s.”
Sequoia had to do something different over the final two quarters because in the first half, Westmoor was matching Sequoia bucket for bucket. The Rams shot 58 percent from the floor in the first two quarters, converting 15 of 26 shots.
“Our rotation was off (in the first half),” said Sequoia coach Fine Lauese. “We needed to settle down on defense.”
In the second half, the Rams were getting a lot of the same looks, but they just didn’t fall as they shot just 4 for 27 in the third and fourth quarters combined and were limited to just 15 points.
“They made some early shots and we missed some looks,” said Westmoor coach Herb Yaptinchay. “The biggest thing for them, they packed it in a little more (defensively).”
Up 48-46 at the start of the third, Sequoia opened the second half with a 10-3 run to open up a 58-49 lead. Following a short jumper from Westmoor’s Alex Johansson, the Cherokees responded with a 12-3 run to close the quarter and lead 70-54 going into the fourth.
“Defensively, in the second half, our rotation was a lot better,” Lauese said.
While Sequoia ended up turning a close game into a relatively easy victory, there were plenty of questions about which team would come out on top following an epic first half, one that saw the teams combine for 94 points, connecting on 17 3-pointers in the process.
Westmoor held the early advantage, opening with the first four points, but a pair of free throws and a fastbreak lay-up from Nathan Schult tied the game at 4 for Sequoia. Westmoor’s Sean Orr buried back-to-back 3s to give the Rams a 10-7 lead and they led 15-12 on a Johansson 3.
Johansson would go on to connect on his first four 3 attempts of the game as he finished with a team-high 16 points.
But a pull-up jumper from LeBlanc, followed by a 3 from Bene put Sequoia up 17-15, but Westmoor answered with Johansson’s second 3 of the quarter for an 18-17 advantage.
Ziggy Lauese converted a three-point play and following a pair of free throws from Orr, Bene hit a 3 to put the Cherokees up 23-20 after one quarter.
In the second quarter, the teams simply traded baskets as they combined for 51 points and shot 19 for 34 from the floor, 10 of which were 3-pointers.
LeBlanc wasn’t only one hot in the second as Westmoor’s Lukas Nodar drained 3s on three consecutive possessions late in the quarter.
When Marquez Costiniano knocked down a 3 with 1:04 left in the half, it gave the Rams a 46-43 lead.
Little did they know it would be their last lead of the game. LeBlanc drained his fifth 3 of the half and Bene scored on a fastbreak lay-up with 10 seconds left to give the Cherokees the 48-46 lead at halftime.
“We’ve been in a few of these games, these shootouts,” Coach Lauese said. “[That kind of experience] helps.”