After starting West Catholic Athletic League (WCAL) play with four straight losses, there were very legitimate concerns that the Serra Padres would miss the Central Coast Section (CCS) Open Division for the first time since its inception in 2012.
Less than two months later, they’re headed for the championship game.
“It doesn’t feel real,” junior point guard Ryan Pettis said.
The Padres knocked down 10 first half 3-pointers against the top-seeded Mitty Monarchs, withstood a 12-0 run and went ahead for good on Pettis’ 3-pointer from the wing with 24.7 seconds remaining for a cathartic 50-49 road win in San Jose on Wednesday night.
“I knew I had a mismatch on me, came up, pulled it, and it went in,” Pettis said of his go-ahead shot.
Pettis led all scorers with 22 points, and even earned one of head coach Chuck Rapp’s best compliments following the game.
“He did everything but sweep up the floor after,” Rapp said.
Serra (17-12) trailed 49-44 after a Gavin Ripp lay-in with 2:19 left, but held the Monarchs scoreless the rest of the way. Alex Naber hit a 3-pointer off the last of Aidan Carleson’s assists to cut the lead to two with 1:58 remaining, and Mitty (22-5) missed the front end of a 1-and-1 and a point-blank layup over the next minute.
Following Pettis’ shot for the lead, Mitty turned the ball over with 6.7 seconds left after stepping out of bounds, but earned one last chance after Ripp drew an offensive foul on Pettis with 3.5 on the clock. A contested 3-pointer from the corner missed, and time ran out while players battled for the rebound under the basket.
Missed chances were a theme for the Monarchs throughout the night. They went just 11-for-21 at the line and missed a series of layups in the fourth quarter that prevented them from pulling away.
“We had opportunities,” Mitty head coach Tim Kennedy said. “In a one-possession game, you can nitpick all you want. All the small possessions can make or break the game.”
The possession that’ll be remembered the most is the one that put Serra in front for good. While most of the Padres’ baskets had come off of smooth passing sequences, Pettis simply dribbled near half-court, cut to the wing and hit the shot that secured Serra’s first trip to the Open Division Championship Game since 2015.
That game will be played on Friday night at 8 p.m. at Santa Clara University’s Leavey Center against a similarly improbable opponent, Sacred Heart Cathedral. The Fightin’ Irish went just 4-16 in the 2021-22 season and missed the playoffs entirely.
Shooting in a college arena without a familiar background can provide challenges for shooters, but if the Padres run their offense like they did in the first half, the setting won’t matter. Serra took a 35-26 lead into the break after shooting 10-for-16 from beyond the arc, a mark that would have looked even better if not for a failed last-second heave by Pettis.
It took the Padres nearly four minutes to make their first field goal, but they sank five 3-pointers in the remainder of the first quarter and five more in the second, with Pettis and Marcel Elicagaray each knocking down four.
“Me and Marcel had the hot hand, and we just kept hitting each other,” Pettis said.
Kennedy called a timeout after Alton Robenalt’s 3-pointer gave Serra a 10-4 lead, and he used another after a Pettis stretch pass set up an Elicagaray three to make it 23-15.
“There were a couple in transition, and on the others, we were overcommitting on our help and getting sucked in too low,” Kennedy said. “They were walking into some open ones off the drive, and they started feeling it a little bit, so they didn’t need as much room to knock them down. The rim starts looking huge after you make a couple of those. You get pretty confident.”
That confidence was well-placed. Elicagaray hit another after the timeout to give the Padres their first double-digit lead, and they took their largest lead late in the first half when he connected for the fourth time to make it 34-21. He scored all 12 of his points in the first half.
The two late threes by Naber and Pettis were the only ones the visitors hit in the second half. Seamus Gilmartin scored off an offensive rebound to make it 37-26 in the first minute of the third quarter, but Serra went scoreless for nearly five minutes as the Monarchs rattled off a 12-0 run. Tyler Jones scored nine of his 13 points in the quarter, using a pair of pump fakes to hit a 3-pointer to cut it to 37-30 and draining another with 4:09 left in the quarter to give Mitty the lead for the first time since it was 4-1.
For all the momentum the hosts had at the time, they didn’t score again for the rest of the quarter and mustered only 11 points over the last 12 minutes of the game, largely thanks to Gilmartin.
“He’s been the main reason for our resurgence here,” Rapp said of Gilmartin, who’s committed to play football at Harvard. “He’s got his basketball sea legs under him, and as he’s played better, so have we.”
Strong post play has been a cornerstone of Rapp’s teams, and it’s something that was lacking for much of the season. Gilmartin broke into double figures for the first time all year in Serra’s 23rd game, and did so again in each of the Padres’ next three contests, including twice against St. Ignatius.
He was held to just seven points on Wednesday as he made just five of 10 free throws, but still collected a game-high 14 rebounds. Mitty, with two starters at 6-foot-7 and a third 6-7 forward available off the bench, was limited to just six offensive rebounds for the game.
“I know how to use my leverage,” Gilmarin said. “Playing football, you gotta get low, and it correlates into basketball too.”
Pettis’ and-1 with 2:37 left in the third quarter put Serra up 40-38, but Mitty drew even with 5:05 left in the fourth after one of those sparse offensive rebounds led to a Derek Sangster layup. Sangster, a Princeton commit, finished with 10 points and 10 rebounds.
Nathan Noronha’s 3-pointer off a Ripp offensive rebound put the Monarchs in front with 4:22 to go, and Ripp scored the last of his nine points off a Jones assist with 2:17 left. It turned out to be the final points of the night for the home side.
Noronha finished with 12 points for the Monarchs, who will receive their California Interscholastic Federation (CIF) State Tournament assignment on Sunday. Mitty is still a candidate for the Northern California Open Division, but there’s a chance Wednesday’s loss drops the Monarchs into Division I.
While the Monarchs will look at possible matchups with the likes of Dougherty Valley or Modesto Christian, Serra will be readying itself for a third battle against a familiar opponent, Sacred Heart Cathedral. The Padres cruised to a 75-56 victory at SHC on Jan. 26, but the Fightin’ Irish won in San Mateo on Feb. 4 behind Fed Pernell’s 28-point outburst.
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