A fter a back and forth first half, the Del Norte boys basketball team put the hammer down on McKinleyville in the third quarter. The Warriors turned a 6-point halftime lead into a 25-point advantage heading into the fourth quarter as No. 2 Del Norte cruised to a 76-47 victory over No. 3 McKinleyville in the first round of the Dick Niclai Tournament in Crescent City.

“I am really proud of the way we played. I thought our effort was incredible — which is kind of first and foremost — especially in the third quarter,” said Del Norte head coach Blaine Lopez. “I thought the third quarter was a decisive part of the game. We played so well, and jumped up early in that third quarter and never looked back. We were especially good rebounding. People look at the score and it helps when you make shots — but we didn’t give up a single second-chance point in the third quarter. That was the difference in the game.”

The Warriors drove hard to the basket, managed to get out in transition, and hit the defensive glass early in the second half. Del Norte started a perfect 4-for-4 from the field and scored on each of their first four possessions of the half.

Del Norte senior Nolan O’Kelly started the run off with a drive to the basket for a layup. After a steal by Judah Robinson on the Panthers next possession, O’Kelly once again got to the hoop for an easy bucket in transition. Ethan Price knocked down a jumper on the baseline the next time the Warriors got the ball. After another McKinleyville missed shot O’Kelly got out in transition and fired a pass cross court to Damien Dowd, who promptly sent a pass back across the lane to O’Kelly for a fast-break layup to cap an 8-0 run in two minutes.

“I told them (at halftime) that we were fine, but we gave up too many second-chance points,” Lopez said. “It is really interesting how that works. We went on an 8-0 run to start the third quarter and it was all because they got one shot at the basket. We only got one turnover out of that sequence, we just got out and went and got some easy ones that got us going. That was the difference. I thought we did a great job on the boards, especially in the third quarter.”

By the time AJ Stubbs got the Panthers on the scoreboard in the second half with a layup at the 5:50 mark all the momentum was with the Warriors.

McKinleyville traded a couple baskets with Del Norte to keep the lead in the mid-teens for the next couple minutes, but the Warriors put together a 12-0 run in the final 2:52 of the third quarter to put the game out of reach.

By the end of the quarter, Del Norte had outscored the Panthers 25-6 to push its lead up to 25 points, making the fourth quarter almost a formality.

The Warriors edged their lead up to 71-44 before both teams emptied their benches with 4:29 left in the game.

“I thought we were very unselfish, we played well, and I was so happy with the effort,” Lopez said. “I think sometimes that gets overlooked, and I thought that was the difference, especially in the third quarter. We really played well after halftime, and that is the first time we have done that in a while. We needed it, too, because it was a six-point game at halftime.”

Both teams were scoring well early in the game with Del Norte jumping out to a slim lead, but McKinleyville staying within four points through the early going.

O’Kelly’s second three-pointer of the game followed by a drive in transition by the Warrior senior off of a missed three-pointer by McKinleyville finally gave Del Norte a little breathing room midway through the first quarter and the Warriors took a 23-15 lead heading into the break.

The Panthers flexed their muscle early in the second quarter as Thomas Locatelli started the period off with a turnaround shot in the paint. Stubbs then drove to the hoop and put it in off the glass with seven minutes left before halftime, and nailed a three-pointer to pull McKinleyville back within a point just 1:22 into the second quarter.

McKinleyville took a brief lead, its only one of the game, when Theo Wade grabbed an offensive rebound and put it back into the basket to push the Panthers ahead 27-26 with 4:40 left in the second quarter.

Del Norte retook the lead for good on the next possession when Dowd grabbed an offensive rebound and found a cutting O’Kelly for a layup. Ethan Price hit a pair of back-to-back three-pointers with less than a minute before halftime to turn a two-point lead into an eight-point advantage.

Isaac Puzz answered back for McKinleyville with a quick drive to the basket to make it 39-33 at halftime.

Offensively, the Warriors were led by their senior trio, playing in perhaps their last home game in Thunen Gymnasium. Price finished with a game-high 23 points, followed closely by O’Kelly with 21 for Del Norte while Robinson ended up with 16 points.

“I’m really proud of the seniors, they really stepped up and kind of carried us last night,” Lopez said. “It is the first time this year that all three seniors had such major contributions in the same game. That was nice to see.”

Del Norte had eight players score points against McKinleyville, helping the Warriors reach their highest point total of the season despite an uncharacteristically off shooting night by Del Norte’s leading scorer, Omar Banuelos. Banuelos still managed to put up seven points in the game, however.

“At every level, there are going to be nights where it doesn’t go in for you,” Lopez said. “We were fortunate tonight that other people stepped up in the scoring column because Omar had a rough night. That happens at every level, and I’m glad we had some guys pick up the slack.”

McKinleyville was led by Stubbs with 13 points while Locatelli and Puzz both reach double figures with 11 points apiece.

Del Norte added a freshman and a sophomore to its roster for the postseason and both young players found their way into the scorebook.

Freshman Caleb Dodson and Judson Pinecombe were added to the roster from the junior varsity squad following the regular season finale.

“I like to do that to give them experience because we are going to need them,” Lopez said. “They are varsity players now, that is how we look at it. We are going to need them in the future, so it was nice that they got to get in and contribute. I think it is important for them, even if they don’t get into the game, to be at practice and be around the guys and see the level of intensity and how fast the game is.”

Dodson scored three points and Pinecombe scored a bucket for two points. Both players already have some limited experience playing varsity basketball as both Dodson and Pinecomb played in the first tournament of the season with the varsity team while five Warriors were still playing football.

“It’s a big difference,” Lopez said. “It’s the end of the year, not the beginning of the year.”

With the win, the Warriors advance to the semifinal round on the Niclai Tournament. Del Norte will be on the road today for a 7 p.m. tip-off against the No. 1 seed from the HDN Little 4 — Hoopa.

Hoopa went undefeated in Little 4 games this year, thanks in large part to an explosive offense. Hoopa comes into the game averaging 70.3 points per game and has scored at least 90 points in four games already this year.

“I don’t know very much about them, but I know they are pretty guard-oriented,” Lopez said. “They are going to try to push the ball and they want to shoot a lot of threes. We are going to have to be able to control the tempo a little bit, but it isn’t that we want to stand around either. We want to push the ball when we can, but we have to be opportunistic. We have to make sure we don’t get caught up in going fast and just running up and down the court.”

Reach Michael Zogg at mzogg@triplicate.com .