ATHERTON – In the opening round of the Central Coast Section Open Division boys basketball playoffs, Sacred Heart Prep needed to answer one question.
Were the second-seeded Gators battle-tested enough to topple four West Catholic Athletic League foes in the span of eight days?
“Whoever wins this Open Division this year really has to earn it,” SHP coach Tony Martinelli said.
The Gators proved they belong with the big boys from the WCAL, who comprised the rest of the bracket, after an eye-opening 63-43 rout of No. 7 Bellarmine.
In turn, SHP (22-3) avenged its only loss to a CCS opponent, which dates back to Dec. 18 at the Bells’ own DJ Frandsen Memorial Tournament.
“We caught them on a really lucky night for us in December,” Bellarmine coach Patrick Schneider said. “We earned that win in December, … but we knew exactly who they were. (Tonight) we were ready with our respect and we were ready with our game plan, they’re just really good. They really earned this win.”
The Gators closed out the regular on a 10-game winning streak to go undefeated in the West Bay Athletic League.
But because the margin of victory came to an average of 46 points per game, it wouldn’t have come as a shock if Bellarmine (11-13) pulled off the upset.
“We were kind of viewed at as coming out of a league which isn’t as intense as the WCAL, ‘Oh, they’re not going to handle it right away, they haven’t played teams like that in a little while, ‘” SHP point guard Aidan Braccia said. “And I think we kind of stapled ourselves into that realm tonight and we’re looking forward to that again to the next two teams, which are fantastic basketball teams. We’re going to have play our ‘A’ game, can’t have an off night against these great teams.”
Possible signs of an “off night” materialized during an up-and-down first quarter which ended with the Gators trailing 22-20.
That’s when SHP rose to the challenge.
“I think they were really looking forward to playing a team that if we didn’t play well they could beat us,” Martinelli said. “That was kind of the message going into it and it kind of took over in the second quarter.”
Back in December, SHP deployed what Martinelli described as a “vanilla” scheme while welcoming back its football players fresh of a CIF state championship.
This time around the Gators were able to switch their defense on the fly between man-to-man and into zone to the point that the Bells only managed to sink two 3-pointers after draining a handful in the opening eight minutes.
That included a 30-foot heave to beat the buzzer at the end of the third quarter by Bellarmine senior Theoren Brouillette, who finished with a team-high 15 points.
“It wasn’t that their zone stopped us from scoring, but it just changed the flow,” Schneider said. “It was a really good move and it took us a while to react to that. And, then, when you don’t see the ball go in the basket it’s hard to imagine it go in the best. So I think they did a good job changing momentum and we didn’t really recapture it.”
SHP junior Sam Norris scored nine of his 11 points in the first quarter, but the offense heavily relied on Braccia and fellow senior Emmer Nichols.
Braccia, who signed with Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee, sank all six of his free-throw attempts in the fourth quarter to ice the game and contribute 13 points, while the 6-foot-6 Nichols scored a game-high 16 and set the tone on defence.
“There’s times where I can just sit back and watch them play a little bit and they’re able to make plays,” Martinelli said. “That part of the game on the coaching side just makes our job so easier.”
SHP will continue its Open Division journey on President’s Day with another Pool B round-robin game on campus, a right the Gators will relish twice more against WCAL opponents they already defeated in December.
“It’s unparalleled,” Braccia said of the atmosphere inside the gym. “I think we have the best student section in one of the best communities there are not just in the Bay Area, but in the country.”
He added: “I think it’s the best place to play high school basketball around.”
Also in Pool B, No. 3 Archbishop Riordan cruised at home with a 61-43 victory over No. 6 St. Francis. The Crusaders, who improved to 17-8 overall, were led by King-Njhsanni Wilhite’s 24 points, with another 13 from Brendan Passanisi-Boullet. … In Pool A, top-seeded Archbishop Mitty didn’t blink against No. 8 Valley Christian in a 85-62 rout. The Monarchs (21-4) survived a four-point score only three days earlier to the Warriors in the regular-season finale. … The only nail-biter in the Open Division took place in San Francisco as No. 4 St. Ignatius held off No. 5 Serra by a 50-47 margin.