By the slimmest of margins, Sacred Heart Prep’s hopes of cracking the West Catholic Athletic League (WCAL) bubble are still alive.
The Central Coast Section (CCS) Open Division Championship Game has been an all-WCAL affair since the Open Division was created in 2012. But with Monday night’s 61-59 buzzer-beating win over the Sacred Heart Cathedral Fightin’ Irish, the Gators have a chance to become the first team from outside of the league to reach the championship game.
The full final sequence between @SHC_BASKETBALL and @SHPAthletics. @JerryMixon8 puts @SHCathletics up by one with 11.2 seconds left, but @LamontJustin1 finds @tj_obrien21 for the winner at the buzzer.— The San Francisco Standard Sports (@SportsInSF) February 21, 2023
Gators take it 61-59. pic.twitter.com/v3rV6JF8ZK
To get there, they’ll need to win at Riordan on Wednesday night. Should they lose, a San Francisco WCAL will reach the final. SHC would get in with a win over Menlo-Atherton combined with a Gators loss at Riordan. Should both the Fightin’ Irish and Gators falter, Riordan would reach the championship game for a third year in a row.
The other side of the bracket is much more simple. Whoever wins Wednesday’s game between No. 1 Mitty and No. 4 Serra will advance.
Yes, Sacred Heart Prep (19-6) is a private school, and a rather prestigious one at that, with tuition just over $50,000 a year for high schoolers. But the Gators compete in the West Bay Athletic League (WBAL), a league where just one school exceeds 800 students. SHP’s enrollment of 642 is 340 lower than any WCAL school.
On Friday, SHP opened CCS Open Division Pool Play with a last-second win over Menlo-Atherton as center Sam Norris delivered a go-ahead and-1 with 2.1 seconds left. Monday night was TJ O’Brien’s turn, as the junior sank a 3-pointer from the corner as time expired.
“You get a couple of these in a row; you feel like it’s supposed to happen,” Gators head coach Tony Martinelli said. “Sometimes you’ve gotta just let players make plays.”
Sacred Heart Cathedral (14-12) took a one-point lead on Jerry Mixon Jr.’s drive and floater off the glass with 11.2 seconds left. Rather than call a timeout, SHP let JP Kerrigan immediately take the ball up the floor. He made his way inside the 3-point line and kicked to Erick Osterloh at the top of the arc. Osterloh swung it to LJ Quattlebaum on the wing, and Quattlebaum made the quick feed to O’Brien in the corner.
“I knew I had one more second to kick it, and TJ was more open than I was,” said Quattlebaum, who had given the Gators a 58-57 lead on a pair of free throws with 18.9 seconds left. “I let him do his thing.”
O’Brien released the fateful shot with a second on the clock, and it fell through a split second after the horn sounded.
“I peeked at the clock right before I shot it,” O’Brien said.
It was a fitting end on a night where neither team ever led by more than five points. SHP entered the fourth quarter with a 40-37 lead after outscoring the Irish 14-6 in the third and held a 51-47 lead with 3:16 left, but SHC guard Zemaury Erfe drew a game-changing charge on O’Brien 36 seconds later. Instead of allowing an O’Brien basket to open up a six-point edge, the Irish came back down the floor and got back-to-back threes from Erfe and Fed Pernell to take a 53-51 lead with 2:01 remaining.
Mixon Jr. had a pair of free throws with 1:38 remaining, but missed both, even after a violation against the Gators gave him an extra chance, and Norris tied the game off an O’Brien feed with 1:28 to go. Mixon, an Oregon football commit, redeemed himself on a floater 24 seconds later, but Kerrigan’s fourth 3-pointer of the night put SHP up 56-55 with 51.2 on the clock. The Irish took a 57-56 lead with 33.7 seconds left on two free throws by Fresno State football commit RL Miller, only for Quattlebaum to draw a foul on a rebound with 18.9 to go.
“It’s been a roller coaster like that for a minute,” SHC head coach Caesar Smith said. “We’ve been in these battles before. Kid made a great play at the end of the game.”
Michael Manfreda led the Irish with a game-high 17 points and 11 rebounds. He scored nine in the second quarter, including his team’s last seven and the final five of the first half to send SHC into the locker room with a 31-26 lead. Miller scored eight of his 12 points in the first half, while Pernell scored eight of his 11 in the final two quarters. Mixon finished with nine points and eight rebounds.
Though he failed to score in the first half, Norris finished with 13 points and 11 boards for SHP.
“We were getting pushed around a little by some of their football guys, but I think we bounced back,” the Pomona-Pitzer commit said.
Kerrigan scored 11 of his 16 in the first half, while O’Brien finished with 15 points, eight rebounds and five assists.
Despite graduating four starters from last year’s team, including a pair of Division I players in Aidan Braccia and Emmer Nichols, the Gators find themselves a win away from the Open Division Championship Game for a second year in a row. Last season, they hosted Riordan in a de facto semifinal, only to lose in overtime. In that game, they had a chance at a buzzer beater at the end of regulation.
“I always believed we had a chance to get back here because of what I saw in the summer and what the guys showed in the fall,” Martinelli said. “They just never stopped getting after it, whether it’s shooting in the gym early in the morning or asking to get in late at night.”