Gonzalez sparks Dons to Holiday Classic title

Just call him “Big Game Emilio.”

Like he did as a receiver for the football team at Santa Barbara High, Emilio Gonzalez delivered a big-time performance for the basketball team in a championship game.

Gonzalez sparked the Dons to the title of their Holiday Classic basketball tournament on Saturday night, recording a double-double with 22 points and 12 rebounds in a 60-47 victory over Flintridge Prep before a nice crowd at J.R. Richards Gym.

It was their first Holiday Classic title in over a decade.

Santa Barbara earned it by playing solid team defense and getting contributions from everyone.

Jeff Paschke, Jack Baker and Gonzalez shut down Flintridge Prep’s inside game and controlled the boards. Guards Noah Burke, Matt Wagonhurst and Shawn Ramos contained the Rebels’ quick guards and Michael Day and David Pulido provided good minutes off the bench.

“It was a team victory; a lot of guys contributed,” Santa Barbara coach David Bregante said.

The 6-5 Paschke, the tournament MVP, scored 14 points and stunned the Rebels with a 3-pointer that gave Santa Barbara a 10-point lead with 2:41 left in the fourth quarter. He also grabbed six rebounds. Baker added 13 points and seven rebounds.

Slick junior guard Robert Cartwright scored 17 points and forward Chadd Cosse added 12 points for Flintridge Prep (7-4). But the Rebels struggled to convert many baskets they usually create off of dribble drives and kick-outs.

“Usually were able to get some inside-out and threes out on the perimeter,” Flintridge Prep coach coach Garrett Ohara said. “Tonight that wasn’t the case. Shots weren’t falling. When you get behind, it’s hard to play from behind.”

Cartwright got Flintridge Prep off to a fast start with five points on a 12-2 run.

Santa Barbara settled down and worked its way back into the game. Paschke hit back-to-back baskets and Burke made a steal, was fouled by Cartwright and hit two free throws to make it 16-12. The foul was Cartwright’s second, forcing him to go to the bench.

Gonzalez then made his first impact play of the game, hitting a 3-pointer at the end of the quarter to cut Flintridge Prep’s lead to one, 18-17.

Bregante attributed his team’s slow start to nerves.

“I think the big thing was we were a little nervous and a little excited,” he said. “This team has a big reputation. Some people said Flintridge Prep and Buckley are favored to win their CIF division. Our kids were a little too keyed up.”

On the team’s defensive effort (Flintridge Prep scored 75 points in the semifinals), Bregante said: “This tournament, one of our goals was to get better defensively. That was one of our weaknesses. We’ve been working hard. I think tonight by far was our best defensive effort against a very, very good team.”

Gonzalez gave Santa Barbara its first lead (21-20) early in the second quarter with a power move inside, and he put the Dons ahead at halftime (32-29) by hitting a 3-pointer at the buzzer.

Bregante said Gonzalez has shed about 15 pounds and has healed up since the end of football season, in which he helped the Dons earn a share of the Channel League title.

After his performance on Saturday, he’s now fit for basketball.

“He’s starting to find his rhythm,” Bregante said. “He’s a great, great player.”

Flintridge Prep tied the score at 35-35 at 3:24 of the third quarter, but Gonzalez answered with basket inside off a Paschke assist. The Dons never lost the lead again.

“They’re just too strong,” Ohara said of the Dons. “We know they’re inside-oriented. Obviously, (Gonzalez) just killed us inside.”

Burke and Gonzalez hit 3-pointers and Paschke knocked down a short jumper to open up 45-38 lead with 1:18 left in the third quarter.

Flintridge got as close as five points (47-42) on an offensive rebound by Kareem Ismail early in the fourth quarter. But the Dons answered with a bank shot by Gonzalez and Paschke’s 3-pointer to build their lead to10 points (52-42) with 2:41 to go.

Gonzalez and Cartwright were named to the all-tournament team.