No. 1 seed Denair outlasts rival Mariposa in semifinal thriller, will play for Section Division V basketball title Saturday

Izaiahs Plasencia – the often-overshadowed fifth starter on the Denair boys basketball team – made his presence felt in a big way Wednesday night. The junior put the Coyotes ahead with a 3-pointer with 45 seconds to play, then blocked a shot on defense to lift Denair to a thrilling 60-56 victory over Southern League rival Mariposa in the Sac-Joaquin Section Division V semifinals.

Top-seeded Denair (25-4) moves on to play for its first Section title in 20 years on Saturday. Waiting in the championship game will be No. 11 seed Bradshaw Christian of Sacramento, which edged Ripon Christian 38-37 in the other semifinal.

The title game tips off at noon at Golden One Arena in Sacramento.

Denair and Mariposa know each other well. They have been the two best teams in the Southern League the past four seasons and tied for the league title this year, each handing the other their only SL loss by winning on the other’s home court.

Still, Mariposa unveiled something new Thursday night – a sticky 3-2 zone defense that had Denair on its heels during an uncharacteristically sloppy first half, which saw the Coyotes trailing 31-26 after having made eight turnovers. In their first two meetings, Mariposa played primarily man-to-man defense. 

“Their zone gave us fits,” said Denair coach R.J. Henderson. “It really prevented our guards from penetrating from outside and forced our bigs to make decisions to pass the ball.”

The Coyotes made the appropriate adjustments on offense at halftime. They scored the first 12 points of the third quarter to go up by seven.

“We did a lot better in the second half passing out of the zone,” Henderson said. “We had better looks (at shots) and made better decision. We got their zone to move. And we only had three turnovers, which was huge.”

Still, Mariposa fought back to trail only 42-40 after three quarters. The teams traded the lead four times in the fourth quarter, with the Grizzlies holding a 56-53 advantage with just over 2 minutes left to play.

That’s when Denair’s defense dug in. The Coyotes held Mariposa scoreless the rest of the way, setting the stage for Plasencia’s heroics.

Denair’s other four starters – seniors Mario Plasencia (Izaiahs’ brother), Conner Leonard, Jack Henderson and Cooper Feldman – garner much of the attention because of their gaudy 63-9 record together the past three seasons. Izaiah Plasencia has been what his coach calls “the glue guy,” the player willing to do whatever is required to win a particular game. Sometimes that’s scoring, sometimes that’s making a key defensive play.

Wednesday night, it was both.

Plasencia scored 11 of his 15 points in the second half, including the clutch 3-pointer with 45 seconds to play to that gave Denair a 57-56 lead. Then, on Mariposa’s next possession, he blocked Johann Hill-Zeck’s potential go-ahead shot at the rim.

Mario Plasencia grabbed the rebound and eventually was fouled with 17 seconds to play. His two free throws gave Denair a 59-56 lead. Denair’s defense kicked in again, trapping a Mariposa player in the corner and forcing a jump ball. The Coyotes took possession and Jack Henderson (18 points, 10 assists) made a free throw to ice the game.

Izaiahs Plasencia said he sensed before the game it might be his time to shine.

“When we were shooting today, I was feeling it,” he told the Merced Sun-Star. “I took that feeling into the game and I showed them what I can do.”

Next up for Denair is Bradshaw Christian, another team the Coyotes have some history with. Denair beat them in the first round of the Section playoffs three years ago, but lost to Bradshaw in the semifinals in 2020. In December, Denair won on Bradshaw’s court when Izaiahs Plasencia scored on an offensive rebound and putback with 12 seconds to play.

Despite being the 11th seed, Bradshaw has caught fire at just the right time – knocking off Argonaut, Fortune Early College Prep and then Ripon Christian in the playoffs.

“They’ve had to run the gauntlet so far,” Henderson said. “They’ve beaten the No. 6 seed, the No. 3 seed and the No. 2 seed – all on the road. They’ve woken up.”

Henderson said he intentionally scheduled a non-league game with Bradshaw, anticipating the two schools might meet again in the playoffs.

“We went up there knowing they’d be one of the top five D5 teams in the Section,” he said. “You want to play a tough schedule. That’s how you get to be a No. 1 seed.”

If Denair wins Saturday, it will be the school’s first Section boys basketball title since 2002, when the Coyotes earned a coveted blue banner by defeating Ripon Christian. Win or lose, Denair already is assured of a spot in the NorCal Tournament, which begins Tuesday. The pairings will be announced Sunday and Henderson expects Denair to be at home in the first round.

“Our two goals this season were to win the Southern League and get into the NorCals,” Henderson said. “But we had never really talked about a Section title. When we got the one seed, it was like, ‘Why not us?’ It’s really only been in the last week or so we’ve thought about the blue banner.”

Henderson isn’t worried about his players competing for the first time in the much larger Golden One Arena, home to the NBA’s Sacramento Kings.

“It’s a 10-foot rim and a little longer court than normal, but it’s still basketball,” he said. “I told our players to enjoy the experience and bring their best effort. Every kid and all the coaches will remember this for a long time.”

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