By Bill Choy
Triplicate Sports Editor
CRESCENT CITY It was a night of celebration for the Del Norte High boys varsity basketball team.
On senior night on Tuesday, the Warriors earned the Big 5 Conference title outright with a 57-45 victory over McKinleyville at home.
The Panthers (13-11 overall and 2-5 in the Big 5) gave Del Norte its only conference loss of the year in a double overtime game last month in McKinleyville.
"We needed it, (the win)," Del Norte head coach Blaine Lopez said. "I think we showed up as a team. They didn't want to let the other guys down."
He said the squad wanted to win in front of the home fans and not have to earn the Big 5 title on the road. On Thursday, they finish the regular season against Eureka.
"That's your goal every year," Lopez said about winning the Big 5. Last year, Del Norte finished second.
The Warriors improved to 16-4 overall and 6-1 in the conference. Lopez said they will play at home next Wednesday night in the postseason Dick Niclai Tournament, which features the top three teams from the Big 5 and Little 4 Conferences. Del Norte has a first-round bye.
Fittingly, the Warrior seniors truly stepped up to the plate to earn the victory.
Senior post player Saxon Schultz was superb on both ends of the court, making monster rebounds and blocks and being a major presence in the paint. On offense he made key shots, including several free throws on his way to a 15-point game. Senior Chad Freeman contributed 11 points, while Andrew Fallman, a senior post player, wreacked havoc inside.
This included a few blocks, which received a roar of approval from the standing room only crowd.
A few minutes before the end of the game, with the Warriors well in control, the student section started to chant the name of seldom-used senior Evan O'Brien. He got in with a little more than a minute left.
O'Brien made the most of his opportunity, making two free throws and a basket right before the buzzer.
Junior Cole Lesley had another excellent game and scored 12 points.
The Warriors seemed to be determined not to lose another contest to the Panthers and came out on fire at the start of the first quarter. They raced to a 17-6 lead by the end of the quarter.
In the second quarter, the Warriors came out flat, missed easy shots and let the Panthers cut the lead. Near the end of the quarter, the Del Norte lead was down to six points.
But right at the buzzer, Lesley was fouled shooting a three-pointer. He went to the line and made all three shots to give the Warriors the 28-19 lead heading into the locker room. Seven of those 19 points for McKinleyville came from the free throw line.
In the second half, the Warriors came out of the gate determined to put the game away, making shots and playing pressuring defense.
Del Norte was up by as much as 17 point, and the Panthers were able to get it down to 10, but could not get the margin down lower that that.
Before the game, the seniors from the drill, cheer and basketball teams were honored. At halftime, senior Matt Wakefield was named homecoming king.
In the junior varsity game, Del Norte won 53-42.
In other Big 5 action, Arcata downed Fortuna 51-47 to remain in second in the conference at 5-3.