Couldn't have asked for a better end to the 2012-13 Central Section boys basketball season within Tulare County lines when the Mt. Whitney Pioneers take on the Mission Oak Hawks Wednesday night.
What's on the line?
A spot in the Central Section Division III championship game.
The Pioneers and Hawks meet Wednesday at Mission Oak High School in Tulare. Game time is 7 p.m.
Mt. Whitney is looking for its second straight trip to Selland Arena after taking runner-up in last year's Division III playoff bracket.
Conventional wisdom didn't have Mt. Whitney reaching this far when the season started.
But conventional wisdom didn't have Mt. Whitney (18-9) winning a share of its third straight West Yosemite League either, and the Pioneers accomplished that with a brand-new starting lineup.
The Pioneers don't have anyone with a scoring average of at least 14 points per game, but they have a solid core where they have several players who are capable or reaching double figures. That core is led by senior Dannon Frigulti, senior Garabed Kalanjian and junior Ethan Moore.
Mission Oak is bidding for its first-ever trip to Selland Arena, and the school's first Central Section championship in any sport.
The Hawks were the powerhouse of Tulare County basketball throughout the regular season. Mission Oak won the East Yosemite League title with a phenomenal march through the league slate (average margin of victory was 33.8 points per game) and its first Polly Wilhelmsen Invitational championship.
There may be only a couple of other Central Section teams that could come close to matching the Hawks' scoring depth. The Hawks have five players averaging nine points or more per game, led by junior guards Blake Shannon (19.9 points per game) and Bobby Alvarado (16.0 scoring average).
Mission Oak is second in the Central Section in scoring average (75.1 points per game).
Which brings us to some interesting stats (because something has to give):
* Mt. Whitney hasn't allowed more than 63 points in 16 straight games.
* Mission Oak has scored at least 64 points in 10 straight games, and has scored at least that much in 26 of its 29 games this season.
Shooting stars: The only team that has scored more than 66 points against Mt. Whitney this season is Mission Oak. The Hawks defeated the Pioneers 76-73 on Dec. 10 in Tulare. Mt. Whitney made 12 3-pointers in that contest. The Pioneers likely need to have that type of proficiency from beyond the 3-point arc again on Wednesday. Mission Oak leads the Central Section with an average of 7.7 3-pointers per game. Mt. Whitney is averaging 4.8 3-pointers per game.
Key matchup: If Mission Oak is to suffer a drop-off in its perimeter shooting, which has happened from time to time, it usually is able to pick up the slack with the inside exploits of senior center Kollan Mundley and drives to the basket. Mundley (6-5, 220) had 12 points on 6-of-9 shooting in the first meeting against. Mt. Whitney. He will be guarded by Pioneer senior center Colton Dahlenburg (6-7, 200), who's been a primary reason why the Pioneers have enjoyed a tremendous defensive season. Mundley has a bad habit of getting into foul trouble. If he's out of the game for long stretches, the Pioneers can be a little more creative with their defensive game plan.
Under-the-radar players: Both teams feature players that opponents tend to forget from time to time, and that inattentiveness proves costly. Mission Oak senior Matt Zorn is averaging 11.2 points per game since Jan. 15. He didn't have any points in the first game against Mt. Whitney. Kalanjian has played at an all-Tulare County level over the last six weeks (at least 11 points in seven out of the last nine games). He had just four points against Mission Oak on Dec. 10.
Here's a look at the Central Section playoff brackets:
Who's left: No. 1 Bullard, No. 2 Central, No.3 Clovis West, No. 5 Clovis North
Knights in shining armor: The more and more we see of No.1 Bullard, the more and more you get the feeling this team is capable of doing some serious damage in a Southern California regional playoff bracket. Edison is the lone Central Section team that has been within 25 points of the Knights since Jan. 5. Bullard is ranked No. 6 in the state by Cal-Hi Sports.
Bracket Beat: Bullard host Clovis North on Wednesday with Central taking on Clovis West for the third time since the middle of January. Central and Clovis West split their two Tri-River Athletic Conference meetings. Clovis West 55-46 on Jan. 18. Central won 68-57 on Feb. 6. No Central Section team has reached the 60-point mark against Central since Bullard did it on Jan. 5 (79-55 Knight win).
Who's left: No. 2 Garces, No. 3 Lemoore, No. 5 Hanford West, No. 8 Hanford
WYL Block Party: Three of the final four teams are from the West Yosemite League, but none of them are from Visalia. Tulare Union really has to be miffed that it was placed in Division I, because it might have finally taken the Division II crown if it remained in this bracket. Tulare Union (21-7), who lost to Bakersfield 66-43 in a Division I first-round game, defeated Lemoore twice this season (by a combined 33 points) and had a 76-63 win over Hanford West.
Bracket Beat: Wednesday's Hanford-Hanford West semifinal game will be the fourth meeting this season between the two crosstown rivals. Hanford West won two of the three previous games. Have to like Hanford West's chances since senior guard Josue Salaam has found his hot shooting hand again. Salaam had 27 points in a 64-53 win over No. 4 East Bakersfield. Garces is the tenuous favorite to win it all. One of the Rams' more prestigious wins this season was a 90-88 win over Mission Oak on Jan. 4.
Who's left: No. 1 Independence, No. 2 Mission Oak, No. 3 Mt. Whitney, No. 5 South
In the Driver's Seat: The top-seeded Falcons won their first two playoff games by a combined 74 points. No team has scored more than 51 points against Independence since Tulare Union did it on Jan. 21 in the MLK Showcase at COS (a 77-75 double-overtime win for Independence). Cal-Hi Sports ranks Independence at No. 7 in its Division III state poll. Mission Oak is not even listed as an "on the bubble" team in that same poll.
Bracket Beat: Independence's next foe is a South team the Falcons defeated 65-29 on Dec. 14. If the Falcons aren't in Selland Arena for the 6 p.m tip-off of the Division IV title game, check the news to see if the Apocalypse is coming. Independence defeated Mt. Whitney 60-31 on Dec. 11. Mission Oak can pull off a title-game upset if it's enjoying one of its better shooting games of the season.
Who's left: No. 2 Exeter, No. 3 Sierra, No. 5 Chowchilla, No. 8 Coalinga
Will the Monarchs be the Kings of Division IV?: Exeter is the highest remaining seed after No. 8 Coalinga upended No. 1 Washington Union 68-58 on Friday. It's been a remarkable turnaround season under head coach Randy Reeder. Exeter went 10-16 last year, and its 66-46 first-round playoff win over Kerman last week marked its first playoff win since the 2007 postseason. Big advantage that Exeter has for Wednesday's semifinal date against No. 3 Sierra is that it is home. The Monarchs are 8-1 at home this season. Sierra lost to CVC in last year's Division IV championship game. The Chieftains fended off No. 6 Lindsay in Friday's quarterfinals, 64-60. Exeter defeated Sierra 63-47 on Dec. 19 in the Dinuba Tournament. If Exeter wins Wednesday, it will play at noon on Saturday at Selland Arena.
Bracket Beat: The Monarchs might be Tulare County's best bet to win a Central Section boys basketball crown. Exeter is a solid favorite to win Wednesday, and there's nothing about Chowchilla and Coalinga that should intimidate the Monarchs. The key for Exeter is that it has several reliable scoring sources.
Who's left: No. 1 Minarets, No. 2 Tranquillity, No. 3 Immanuel, No. 4 Laton
Bracket Beat: Minarets received the No. 1 seed based largely on the fact that it was one of only two teams in this bracket with a winning record. Tranquillity is the team to beat. Tranquillity defeated Minarets 76-59 on Dec. 15.
Who's left: No. 1 Stockdale, No. 2 Clovis West, No. 3 Hanford, No. 5 Edison
Who should be the No. 1 seed?: Hanford coach Tom Parrish was peeved that his two-time defending Division I champion Bullpup team was seeded No. 3 despite being considered one of the state's top teams. But the Bullpups barely survived Bullard in Thursday's quarterfinals, needing overtime to defeat the No. 6 Knights 83-74. Up next for the Bullpups is a visit to Clovis West tonight. The Bullpups last met Clovis West on Dec. 3, 2011 (a 56-15 win for Hanford).
Bracket Beat: Everyone's expecting a Stockdale-Hanford title-game showdown -- and that's still the most logical projection -- but don't be shocked if it's Edison and Clovis West in Saturday's championship game. Edison has won 17 straight games and is smothering teams with terrific defensive play.
Who's left: No. 1 Ridgeview, No. 2 Garces, No.3 Redwood, No. 5 Independence
Are the Rangers in danger tonight?: There are some distinct similarities between tonight's Redwood-Garces matchup and last year's semifinal game between the two teams. Last year, Garces defeated Redwood 60-45 early in the season only to lose to the Rangers 63-53 at home in the semifinals. Redwood coach Jason Black said his team was missing a couple of key players in that initial meeting. The Rams opened up their 2012-13 campaign with a 62-48 victory over Redwood, and Black said again last week that the Rangers' current state is significantly stronger than it was when it faced Garces on Nov. 29. Problem is for Redwood right now is that its offense has been sluggish. The Rangers have scored less than 60 points in 6 out of their last eight games. There are only seven players on the Garces roster, but two of them are two of the top players in the section -- senior Rachol West (20.9 scoring average) and her sister, freshman Celeste West (16.1). The younger West had 20 points and 17 rebounds in a 60-41 quarterfinal win over Tulare Western. The key for Redwood is its 3-point shooting. The Rangers lead the Central Section with an average of 6.2 3-point field goals per game.
Bracket Beat: The top-seeded Wolf Pack did nothing to tarnish their prohibitive-favorite status with an 83-36 rout of Lemoore last week. Stanford-bound Erica McCall had 24 points, 12 rebounds and six blocked shots for Ridgeview. Ridgeview is ranked No. 3 in Cal-Hi Sports' Division II state rankings.
Who's left: No. 1 Selma, No. 2 Hanford West, No. 3 Tehachapi, No. 5 Sierra
Bear Attack: Top-seeded Selma justified its billing with a 72-45 drubbing of No. 8 Hoover. The Bears have won their last nine games by an average of 19 points per game.
Bracket Beat: Expect things to get a lot more bumpy for Selma from here on out. The Bears host Sierra tonight, and the fifth-seeded Chieftains field one of the better team defenses in the Central Section (allowing an average of less than 35 points per game). And if Selma does get by Sierra, there's a possible title-game matchup against Hanford West. Selma defeated Hanford West 52-51 in the Dec. 28 semifinals of the Mid-Winter Showcase in Tulare.
Who's left: No. 1 Lindsay, No. 2 Mendota, No. 3 Taft, No. 4 Exeter
Cardinals Rule: No. 1 Lindsay (22-6) opened with a 62-19 win over Coalinga and advanced to the semifinals with a 50-36 win over No. 9 Caruthers. Junior guard Christina Castro is averaging over 19 points per game and has scored 46 points in two playoff games. Lindsay hosts No. 4 Exeter tonight. The two teams met in a nonleague game on Jan. 11 with Lindsay winning 57-27. Exeter (18-10) has won five out of its last six games. The Monarchs have played well in the playoffs, limiting Fowler to 30 points in a first-round win and holding Kingsburg to 41 points in a quarterfinal victory. Tonight's winner will open up play Saturday at Selland Arena with a 10 a.m. start. A Tulare County team has been in the Division IV final in three of the last five seasons, tonight's Lindsay-Exeter game guarantees it will be four in six years.
Bracket Beat: Based on their first meeting this season, Lindsay appears to have a significant edge over Exeter in tonight's game. Mendota or Taft will not be a pushover for the Cardinals in the final, though. Expecting Lindsay versus Mendota on Saturday morning.
Who's left: No. 1 Immanuel, No. 2 Kings Christian, No. 3 Laton, No. 4 Paramount Bard
Bracket Beat: Immanuel (18-7) is the heavy favorite.