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Winning welcome

Posted: Monday, Dec 24th, 2012

Santa Cruz’s Jeremy Tyler goes to the hoop past two Bakersfield defenders during the first half of their game Sunday night at Kaiser Permanente Arena in downtown Santa Cruz. Tyler scored 14 points as the Warriors won 93-88. (Tarmo Hannula/Register-Pajaronian)

SANTA CRUZ — There went Travis Leslie at midcourt with 3:21 to go in the game, having stolen the ball away from a Bakersfield guard. He stutter stepped, leaped high in the air and dunked the ball with fury to the delight of a sold-out crowd at Kaiser Permanente Arena.

If the next 23 home games are like this, the Santa Cruz Warriors are going to own this town.

Perhaps they already do.

In their first home game at 140 Front St., Santa Cruz defeated the Bakersfield Jam 93-88, kicking off a four-game homestand that was already successful the moment the players roared out to the court for a pre-game shootaround.

“It felt like a college atmosphere,” said a smiling Stefhon Hannah, who had seven points, five rebounds and five assists.

With the win, the Warriors improved to 6-2 on the season as an announced crowd of 2,505, most wearing blue and gold T-shirts, provided the cheers for the home team, the boos for the away team, and the wows for any spectacular move on and off the court.

“We stuck together, and we executed down the stretch, and we pulled down the win,” said Kent Bazemore, who led the Warriors with 18 points and seven rebounds.

Bazemore was the pseudo closer for the Warriors, scoring nine points in the final 9:39 to keep the Jam at bay.

Coach Nate Bjorkgren praised Bazemore and Jeremy Tyler for stepping up during the team’s biggest game to date.

“They both were trying to be excellent team players,” Bjorkgren said. “They know that the group of guys down here in the D-League works here every day, and they came down and shared the ball and played within the system, and I thought they played well.”

It was Bakersfield that got off to a 5-0 start after an uncontested layup by Stephen Dennis and a 3-pointer by forward Adam Koch.

The Warriors played above the rim to get the lead back. Mickell Gladness got a tip-in to etch his name into local Santa Cruz trivia as the first Warriors player to score in the new arena. He then nailed two free throws. Travis Leslie, one of the D-League’s top 10 players to watch, followed with a three-pointer in the corner to give Santa Cruz its first home lead at 8-7 with 9:32 to go.

Bakersfield tied the game at 24-24 with 2:45 to go on a three-pointer by Brian Butch, but Santa Cruz got the lead right back when Chris Johnson raced down the court and made a contested layup.

The teams wrestled back and forth. As much as Bakersfield did to grab the lead, all it could do at best was tie. The Warriors, meanwhile, held off the Jam as they continued to build their lead.

Tyler, assigned by the Golden State Warriors to Santa Cruz in time for the game, led the D-League club with 10 first-half points. He was the only starter from either team to post double digits scoring. He also grabbed six rebounds and eventually finished with 12.

Bakersfield’s James Nunnally, a reserve, played just 10 minutes but scored 10 points on 4-for-5 shooting.

Of the two, it was Tyler who kept it going. He hit a tear-drop for the Warriors’ first points of the second half as they took a 60-50 advantage. He then hit a tear drop with 5:34 to give the home team a 67-54 advantage.

While Tyler was the workhorse, getting a double-double before the end of the third quarter, Chris Johnson provided the crowd with a massive throwdown, giving the Warriors a 73-56 lead with 2:22 to go in the third quarter. The dunk put Johnson into double digits scoring.

Leslie also joined the double-digit club midway through the third quarter and eventually tallied 15 points for the game. Chris Johnson and Taylor Griffin each finished with 11 points.

Bakersfield did its best to cut into the Warriors’ lead. It trailed 79-72, but on back-to-back possessions, it couldn’t score. It missed three shots and then had a turnover. On its third time down by that score, James Nunnally hit a three-pointer in the right corner, cutting the spread to 79-75.

But again, the Warriors held off the Jam.

Bazemore hit one of two free throws and then blew by a Bakersfield defender to give Santa Cruz an 82-75 lead with 6:39 to go.

After a Renaldo Major in-your-face dunk, Bazemore hit a spot-up three-pointer to get the crowd roaring.

“Team defense is the most important thing in the league,” Bjorkgren said. “Offensive is going to be more fun if we can get stops.”

For the complete article see the 12-25-2012 issue.

Click here to purchase an electronic version of the 12-25-2012 paper.

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