IRVINE — In the past, down the stretch of Pacific Coast League play, Corona del Mar High has dealt with adversity. Injuries and illnesses got in the way of the Sea Kings claiming the league title, or them having to share it.
The Sea Kings have stumbled before in the final week of league, losing crucial games. They tend to be the better team, winning or sharing four of the past six league championships.
They're no longer the team to beat in league. Injuries and illnesses have nothing to do with it.
With a chance to move into a first-place tie with Northwood on Tuesday, the Sea Kings came up short on the road and it cost them any shot at a league crown and a possible top-four seed in the upcoming CIF Southern Section Division 3-AA playoffs.
Once again, Northwood proved it's better than CdM, beating the Sea Kings, 62-53, and clinching the outright league title. The only team to get past CdM, ranked No. 3 in the Division 3-AA poll, twice this season is Northwood.
The Timberwolves are back on top of the Pacific Coast League. The last time they stood there a coach named Tim O'Brien guided them to first place seven years ago. He returned this season after a five-year break and he has Northwood one victory away from finishing league perfect.
"I have players. It takes players," O'Brien said of the reasons why the Timberwolves have won their fourth league title in the program's history, all under O'Brien's watch. "My goal when I got hired [again] was to give them an edge and my edge I gave them was through my experiences, give them confidence and a little swagger."
O'Brien calls this season's Timberwolves (20-5, 9-0 in league) a resilient bunch. His team could've folded in the first half, when CdM scored the game's first eight points and opened the second quarter on an 8-2 run.
The deficit grew as large as 13 points midway through the second quarter. CdM (17-9, 7-2) came out and denied the Timberwolves easy looks, making them work during each possession.
The Timberwolves, ranked No. 5 in Division 3-A, responded.
"CdM really came out at us quick, hard, heavy and fast, and [its players] were just fist-pumping early, and at halftime, we're only down one," said O'Brien, whose team outscored CdM, 17-5, in the final three minutes of the first half.
A big reason why the Timberwolves managed to make it a close game was three of the Sea Kings' starters — Blake Grable, Max Stone and Kevin Manchester — sat on the bench with two fouls each in the second quarter.
During that second quarter, CdM turned the ball over 10 times. The times it took care of the ball, CdM made five of eight shots and it went into the break with a 27-26 lead.
That would be the last time the Sea Kings led.
Fifty-eight seconds into the second half, Zach Pierce's basket in the paint put Northwood ahead for the first time. The Timberwolves went on to outscore CdM, 19-10, in the third quarter. They got contributions from four players, Kevin Norman (21 points), Cole Murray (12 points), Pierce (11 points) and Fernando Rivas (seven points) during the third.
"They made shots, even when we played good [defense]," CdM Coach Ryan Schachter said of the Timberwolves, who made 19 of 34 shots in the final three quarters. "I don't know how many free throws they missed, but it wasn't many."
For the game, Northwood converted 15 of 16 free throws. The Sea Kings shot a high percentage from the charity stripe as well, making 15 of 17.
The difference was CdM struggled from the field, shooting 30% in the second half.
The closest CdM got to Northwood in the fourth quarter was 47-40. In the first minute of the quarter, Stone knocked down a three-pointer, giving him 11 points.
The senior was never heard from again.