By Bill Paterson
Gabe Bealer was so exhausted he could hardly speak.
The Antelope forward was drenched in sweat. His chest was still heaving as he spoke in brief bursts of exertion after he and his Titans teammates outfought visiting St. Mary's of Stockton 50-36 in Friday night's Sac-Joaquin Section Division II quarterfinals.
The game was a rematch of last season's D-II section championship game at Power Balance Pavilion, a game St. Mary's won 61-50 against a upstart Titans team playing its second varsity season and first with a senior class.
Bealer wasn't on that team. He played as a sophomore for Jesuit.
But the 6-foot-5 junior grew up in Antelope, joined his neighborhood buddies this season and is another reason why the top-seeded Titans (28-1) have won 27 consecutive games and will return again to Power Balance. Antelope plays No. 4 Bella Vista (an 83-48 winner over Cosumnes Oaks) in Wednesday's semifinals.
"This is fun and this is my family," said Bealer, between gasps, who finished with a game-high 15 points. "I can't wait to play with these guys at Power Balance. Tonight was tough. We started slow, but then we got aggressive."
Slow is an understatement.
Antelope shot 1 of 12 in the opening quarter and trailed the ninth-seeded Rams 23-13 at halftime. But Antelope outscored the Rams' 17-4 in the third period and held them to 3 for 25 shooting in the final two quarters. Antelope also shot a sizzling 15 of 25 from the floor in the second half, although the Titans couldn't put it out of reach until less than two minutes remained against the tenacious Rams (22-7).
"They knew what we liked to do, got physical with us, and we took a punch in the jaw," said Antelope coach Rob Richards. "Nobody made us go that hard for that long this season."
Antelope had only one game in the Capital Athletic League that was decided by fewer than 14 points. St. Mary's finished third in a very competitive Tri-City League that included third-seeded McNair and D-I power West of Tracy.
Antelope made some halftime adjustments, improved its spacing to get shots closer to the basket while doing what they do best - run the floor.
The Titans also played off the dominating interior post play of 6-6 junior shot-blocker and rebounder Isaiah Ellis and were fired up by their monstrous and colorful Red Zone student rooting section that filled up one side of the grand stands and cheered, danced and sang the night away.
While Bealer was big in the second half with 13 points, Antelope sixth man Derek Denten also had a big night.
He scored 11 points, including two turning-point layups, one off his own steal, late in the third quarter that broke a 26-26 tie and put Antelope ahead to stay.
"He's my unsung hero, the sixth man off the bench," Richard said. "He'd probably start for 89 percent of the teams in the city. He had (11) points, a couple of big steals, a big block late, and he's my best on-ball defender. Those kind of players are a coach's dream."