Whenever Firebaugh High and Mendota High square off for boys’ basketball, it is usually played in front of a packed gymnasium.

But when you throw in playoff ramifications, you can bet seats will be at a premium.

In the latest “Battle of 33”, the Aztecs hosted the Eagles last Wednesday in the quarterfinals of the Central Section Div. V playoffs. With Aztec Gymnasium packed to the rafters, Mendota came away with a thrilling 52-44 victory. Mendota now moves on to the semifinals, where they will host McFarland tonight at 6 pm for a chance to play at Selland Arena in Fresno this Saturday in the Section finals.

Firebaugh and Mendota split their two regular-season games, with the visitors coming out on top both times. According to second-year Mendota head coach Elijah Ray Clark, resilience was key to the victory.

With both teams applying full-court pressure throughout the game, turnovers and breakaways were key, as well as three-point shooting. Firebaugh held a slim lead in the first half thanks to the play of center Norbi Mendoza and guard Johnny Salazar. The Eagles, leading 31-28 to start the third quarter, continued to hold their lead as the Aztecs kept turning the ball over.  But Mendoza, a strong presence in the middle, had to go to the bench with foul trouble, allowing the Aztecs more shots in the paint.

With Firebaugh holding a slim 37-36 lead to start the final quarter, Mendota turned to forward Seth Quintana. The senior nailed a three-pointer with 5:56 left in the game to give his team its first lead of the night, 40-37. He followed that up with two more threes, and when his fourth straight attempt rimmed out, the Aztecs got the rebound, kicked the ball back out to him for another shot, and he drained it to put the game away. He led all scorers with 17 points.

“Zeth can shoot the ball,” remarked Clark, who played basketball at Reedley College before graduating from Fresno State. “He started the season late because of medical issues, but he has put in extra time working on his three-point shot and his free throws.”

Clark also said that center Baltazar Moreno came through with a stellar job of rebounding in the second half.

“In the second half, Baltazar got just about every defensive rebound, and we only gave Firebaugh one shot,” he said. “He put in a great effort. He lost a lot of weight over the summer and has worked hard to improve his game. He has just gotten better, kept working, and is a true example of all his hard work paying off.”

Defensively, Mendota switched to a zone defense to counter the slashing and driving of Firebaugh’s quick guards.

“Defensively, it was a collective effort,” said Clark. “Jeremiah Murphy, Oscar Ochoa, Tre Duggan—they all played well.”

Now Mendota will move on to face McFarland, which defeated Granite Hills-Porterville.

“We saw McFarland last year,” said Clark. “They can shoot the ball, and they have a tall forward who gets to the basket really well.”

But he knows his team will have the advantage of another packed gym full of supporters.

“It was a great sight to see,” said Clark.  “It was great for our fans and for the kids to experience it.  They responded well when they stepped on the court.”

David Borboa