AMERICAN CANYON — Mike Wilson likes to talk about the five seasons he and his Central Catholic basketball team endured this school year.
Because of injuries, illnesses and the necessity to wait until the Raiders’ 16-game football campaign was over for a full basketball roster to emerge, it seemed like this was a team in constant flux, finally coming together in March to make an historic postseason run.
And then, after surviving all of those tweaks and adjustments, the season was over in sudden and brutal fashion, in a span of eight minutes, 32 seconds.
That was the length of the CCHS scoring drought, during which time St. Joseph Notre Dame of Alameda embarked on a 20-point scoring run that stood up for a 54-42 victory Saturday in the NorCal Division 5 championship game at American Canyon High School.
“Once everybody was healthy we finally saw this team,” Wilson said. “It does feel like five different seasons, and these guys did a great job of jelling as a team through all the changes.”
The longest playoff run in school history ended one game short of a berth in the state title game, with the Raiders posting a 27-7 record after going 12-0 in their final season as a member of the Western Athletic Conference.
Central Catholic joins the Valley Oak League in September for all sports, which will mandate a move to Division 4 for the basketball playoffs.
Meanwhile, the Pilots (30-5) aren’t moving anywhere, and neither is their coach. Donald Lippi is in his 35th season of coaching and St. Joseph’s will be playing in a state championship game for the fourth straight year.
These teams met in mid-December, with the Raiders invading St. Joe’s intimate gym and coming away with a 68-52 victory. By Wilson’s definition, that was three teams ago, but it was a decision that got the attention of the Pilots and held it all the way through this week’s preparations.
“We knew we had to outrebound them to have a chance to win the game,” said Pilot center Temidayo Yussuf, who had 16 points and 19 rebounds. “We needed to be tougher than them inside because last time we played they were the tougher team.”
St. Joseph not only showed that grit on the boards, outrebounding Central Catholic 45-27, but especially on defense, where it handcuffed the Raiders into a 14-for-47 (29.8 percent) shooting performance.
“We had some problems finishing our shots,” Wilson said. “We missed some shots and changed some shots, which cost us opportunities to make a run and get back into the game. Every time we made a run through our grittiness we’d get an opportunity inside and couldn’t make it work out.”
Never was that more evident than in the second quarter. Joe Hamilton had nine of his game-high 19 points in the opening eight minutes, and when guard Jourdan Johnson hit a short running jumper 13 seconds into the second quarter Central Catholic had a 13-11 lead.
The Raiders wouldn’t score again the rest of the half, committing eight turnovers while missing 11 consecutive shots in a slide that was more than long enough for the Pilots to take complete control.
“The defense the kids played to hold Central Catholic to two points in the second quarter was all over the place,” Lippi said. “I’m happy to see that level of defense because this team didn’t know how to do that at the beginning of the year.”
St. Joseph was in a 2-3 zone for the entirety of the run, with guards Jade Smith, a freshman, and Esteban Lovato, a sophomore, cutting down the perimeter passing angles and driving lanes. And when the Raiders did find a seam, the 6-7 Yussuf and 6-4 junior Lamont Banks were able to handle matters inside.
“I give credit to Jim Boeheim at Syracuse,” Lippi said. “I study his films and do everything he does. He’s proven, especially at tournament time, that it’s hard to play against a zone because teams don’t have very long to adjust.
“I play zone because I have the best big man (Yussef) in the Bay Area, and if we play man-to-man they’ll pull him away from the basket. He got 19 rebounds tonight, so I would have been stupid not to keep him inside.”
The Raiders would not make any excuses, but forward Jonathan Boddie was hampered by a groin strain suffered during practice on Friday, while guard Johnson missed practice time this week with strep throat.
“I’m just disappointed that we lost, but it’s good that we made it this far,” Boddie said. “I was able to play, but we just weren’t able to finish our shots inside, and I can’t say much more about that.”
St. Joseph eventually built leads as large as 16 points, and the Raiders were only able to draw as a close as seven points with a minute left when the Pilots went through a stretch of missing seven of 10 free throws.
Lovato, who had a hand injury and didn’t play in the first meeting, stepped up at that point to hit eight straight free throws in the final 53 seconds, scoring 11 of his 16 points in the final eight minutes.
Boddie, despite being limited to 19 minutes of action, had eight points and a team-high eight rebounds for Central Catholic.
If indeed the Raiders survived five seasons this year as Wilson said, then they also had five chances to learn and mature.
And who could ask for more than that?
“This team learned how important it was to never quit, and that’s what got us here,” Wilson said. “It was a good learning experience for all the guys here.”