Santa Cruz Warriors guard Lester Quiñones scored a career high 41 points in a 119-112 loss to Salt Lake City Stars on Feb. 25. (Juan Reyes/The Pajaronian)

SANTA CRUZ—Santa Cruz Warriors were hoping to secure its fifth straight victory in front of a packed house at Kaiser Permanente Arena.

Instead, it was the Salt Lake City Stars which outshined the Sea Dubs in a 119-112 loss in what was a back and forth thriller for the fans on Feb. 25. 

Lester Quiñones shined the brightest for Santa Cruz and crammed the stat sheet with a career high 41 points.

“I came out early and realized they were dropping back on me, so I made them pay,” Quiñones said. “I feel like teams can’t go zone on me because I’ll stretch them out.”

The Warriors found themselves running on fumes late in the game, as it was their third game in four days.

“I think a little bit was the fatigue and a little bit was we just missed some good shots and they have guys who don’t usually shoot that well,” said Santa Cruz’ head coach Seth Cooper.

Additionally, Santa Cruz was without several of its key contributors including Dusty Hannahs who is competing for the USA Men’s World Cup qualifying team and Gui Santos, who is competing for the Brazil qualifying team. 

With only 11 games remaining in the season, last week’s game had major playoff implications for both squads.

The G League schedule has two sections starting with the 18-game Showcase Cup on Nov. 4, followed by a 32 game regular season.

This format determines six of the 15 teams in each conference that will earn a spot in the postseason.

The Stars entered the game half a game ahead of the Warriors in an extremely close Western conference.

After finding themselves down 13-0 less than two minutes in, Santa Cruz called a quick timeout and clapped back with several quick buckets from Quiñones.

“It’s just being aggressive like I was today,” Quiñones said. “Once I’m aggressive and I get going, it’s easier for me to get everybody else going.”

It was a physical back-and-forth battle for much of the first half with Santa Cruz looking half a step behind, yet still within striking distance.

Turnovers played a major role and slowed the game down. Both teams gave the ball up 16 times.

Inside the paint, it was a battle of the bigs. Santa Cruz center Jayce Johnson–who leads the G League with 13.8 rebounds per game–bullied down low against Stars’ 6-foot-8 double-double machine Michah Potter.

Potter made his presence known by tallying 17 points, 14 of which came in the first half, and snatching 14 rebounds, while holding Johnson scoreless.

“They were really focused on tagging [Johnson] and they were switching,” Cooper said. “As long as he plays as hard as he does, he has a huge impact on the box score, with or without scoring.”

Salt Lake City dominated inside the paint, hitting 45.2% of their field goals and 39.5% from beyond the arc.

The same can be said for Santa Cruz however, who seized their first lead of the game just over a minute into the third quarter by a Quiñones 3-pointer.

Newly acquired Armon Fletcher has only played several games for Santa Cruz but he’s already having a dramatic impact on both ends of the ball, chipping in 11 points.

“I just try to bring energy,” Fletcher said. “Coach asks me to be the hardest player on the court and I take pride in that, I’ll always take pride in that.”

The Warriors’ stifling defense combined with a barrage of three point shots in the third quarter brought them back into the game, leading by as much as nine points.

The Stars were able to get some vital buckets down the stretch. Christian Vital hit a dagger with a mid-range pullup shot and followed up with a steal that turned into a slam dunk to put an exclamation point on their win.

The Warriors will have several days of much needed rest before heading into two consecutive games against the Cleveland Charge, including a home game at the Chase Center where the Golden State Warriors play.

Santa Cruz hit its stride in February, winning six of their seven matchups going into Saturday’s game.

Moving forward, Cooper feels confident in their ability to take down any team in the G League barring any major injuries.

“I feel really good about where our team is as long as we’re healthy and we’ve got guys ready to play,” Cooper said. “I think every game from here out is pretty big.”

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