The Warriors feed off their defense, and nobody knows it better than senior forward Tanner Herman.
“If it wasn't for defense, I wouldn't have been a varsity player when I was a sophomore,” Herman said. “I'm not that great on offense, to be honest.
“But coach knows that defense wins championships.”
That's exactly what the Warriors were all about on Thursday, Jan. 5 when they beat a very tough Garces team 55-49, playing their best, most complete game defensively of the season.
In the middle of it all was their D-man, Herman, taking charging fouls, harassing Garces passing lanes, hitting the boards and helping the Warriors turn in a classic defensive gem.
“Defense is the jewel of our game,” said point guard David Wheeler, who was a perfect 6-for-6 from the foul line in the final 50 seconds as Garces tried to claw its way back into the game.
Wheeler and Jesus Sanchez provided much of the Warriors' offense with 16 points apiece, but even when their offense went silent at the end of the first half, the Tehachapi defense was there to keep the damage to a minimum.
“Our entire focus for all two hours at every practice the past week has been on defensive skills, communicating on defense, boxing out and minimizing possessions by our opponent,” coach Louie Saavedra said.
The victory made the Warriors perfect for the week. They won 59-29 at Rosamond on Tuesday, Jan. 3.
The Warriors (8-8) had just one final preseason game on their schedule, Tuesday, Jan. 10 at Highland, before starting their South Yosemite League season at home against Independence on Friday, Jan. 13.
“We're hoping Friday the 13th will be lucky for us,” Saavedra said.
If the Warriors continue to play defensively the way they did against Garces, they won't need a lot of luck.
“We're feeling really good about ourselves right now,” Herman said. “If we play our game, we can come out and beat any team. We could be unstoppable.”
The Warriors looked unstoppable in the early going against Garces. They built a 23-9 lead with 3:31 left in the first half, getting a couple of key buckets off the bench from Nathan Deaville.
Then, the Warriors offense went flat, failing to score again before halftime. Still, Tehachapi clung to a 23-22 halftime lead, mostly thanks to its dogged defense.
Garces tied the score 25-25 two minutes into the third quarter, and the Warriors offense kicked in once again, going on an 11-2 run over the next 2:19 for a 36-27 lead.
Paul Stephens started the run with a pair of free throws, Wheeler had a couple of baskets, and Herman capped the run with a rare 3-pointer, his first of the season.
Junior reserve Ben Dayton, deadly from mid-range, hit three 8-12 foot jumpers in the fourth quarter and wound up contributing 8 points to help hold off a determined Garces team.
The Rams got within 49-46 with 52 seconds left, and that's when Wheeler went to work from the foul line.
He went to the line for a 1-and-1 with 49.3 seconds left and hit them both. He sank two more with 28.5 seconds left and, with the Warriors leading 53-49 with 4 seconds to play, rattled home two more for the victory.
“I was just thinking, shoot my shot,” Wheeler said. “We shoot a lot of free throws in practice.”
With the start of league looming the following week, Saavedra had a sense of the importance of beating Garces.
“This was huge for us. Garces is a very competitive team, very physical,” Saavedra said. “We took care of their pressure, made some crucial baskets and hit our free throws when it counted.
“Overall, I think we've finally learned how to execute all the way through the final minutes.”