With the junior class on a planned trip to Israel, the Kehillah Jewish boys basketball team had to decide whether it even wanted to play in its first ever Central Coast Section tournament game.
The Rams were minus three players, including two starters, and were down to eight players. To complicate matters, burly center Gabe Wulfsohn was nursing an injured ankle.
"It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and we knew we had to do this," Kehillah Jewish sophomore Guy Manor said. "We knew it would be a tough game."
The Rams rode the energy of senior guard Yuval Luria and the dynamic scoring duo of Manor and senior Sam Feldman to a surprising 48-34 victory over host Mid-Peninsula in a Division V contest that meant a lot to both teams.
"Just making CCS was more than enough," Manor said. "To win was amazing."
Their reward is a second-round game Thursday at Pinewood. Tip-off is 7 p.m.
"We've come a long way," Kehillah Jewish coach Ed Campbell said. "We've made big improvements. We're not the most skilled team but we can gut it through and these guys came together. It's been a lot of fun."
Feldman, Luira and fellow seniors Eli Sneider, Scott Petrushka, Josh Hall and Wulfsohn will remember this game as a starting point for the program. They suffered through agonizing seasons when losses piled up and it looked like there was no progress.
The Rams were a combined 8-27 the previous two years. This year's 9-10 record shines like a beacon.
"The seniors provide a lot of leadership," Campbell said. "We finally figured out our defensive identity and the kids really jelled."
Mid-Peninsula can see things turning around as well. The Dragons (9-12) matched their win total of the previous three years combined and they lose one starting senior. They won six of their final nine games, including a pair of wins over the Rams, to garner a No. 12 seed for the CCS playoffs.
The Dragons did not make a field goal until Isaac Hart-Skaife hit a putback early in the second quarter. Mid-Peninsula showed some character and rallied from 22 points down early in the second half to put itself in position to contend. The slow start was too much to overcome.
Manor scored 11 of his 15 points in the first half, including a trio of 3-pointers in the first quarter, when the Rams opened a 13-3 advantage.
Dragons Clarence Jackson, who finished with nine points, made three foul shots. The Rams led by as many as 17 points in the second quarter and took a 25-10 edge into halftime.
Kehillah Jewish scored the first seven points of the third quarter to open a 22-point lead and it looked like the Dragons had lost their fire.
Ryan Burton sank a pair of free throws and added a short jumper, Hart-Skaife sank two free throws and Miguel Najar, who had to leave the game for a few minutes with a bloody nose, scored and Mid-Peninsula was suddenly within 32-22 with plenty of momentum and plenty of time.
Feldman, who scored 16 of his game-high 18 points in the second half, stopped the bleeding and the Rams carried an 11-point led into the final period.
Burton, who finished with 10 points, alertly grabbed an offensive rebound and put it back up to bring the Dragons within nine at the beginning of the fourth quarter. That was as close as it would get the rest of the way.
Mid-Peninsula outrebounded the Rams by a 32-30 margin, with Ben Aguiar leading the team with eight. Luria, the shortest player on the court, grabbed a game-high 10 rebounds.
"Pound for pound and inch for inch he's the best rebounder I've ever been around," Campbell said. "He's a real inspiration."
Mid-Peninsula coach Kurt Lange had to double as the P.A. announcer before the game. He rose to the occasion and performed admirably.