Talk about your good timing.
Heading into Wednesday’s North Coast Section playoff game against San Leandro, the Berkeley Yellowjackets hadn’t had a tough game in weeks. They went a perfect 12-0 in ACCAL play, but observers were wary of a letdown against a tough Pirates squad.
All Berkeley did was respond with perhaps their best overall game of the year. The ’Jackets, the No. 4 seed in the playoffs, put all fears to rest with a scorching 24-0 run bridging the first and second quarters, giving them a 26-7 lead that was insurmountable, thanks to their trademark scrapping full-court press. The No. 5 Pirates never got closer than 13 points for the rest of the game, and Berkeley won 68-55 to move on to the NCS semi-finals.
“These guys were really focused to play this game. We had not played a real competitive game in a long time, and we knew we were going to be challenged,” Berkeley head coach Mike Gragnani said. “This was one heck of a defensive effort. San Leandro didn’t know what hit them.”
The ’Jackets were led on offense by guard Byron St. Jules. The senior scored 11 points in the first quarter on his way to a game-high 23, after scoring 22 in the regular season finale against El Cerrito last Friday.
“It’s the playoffs, so I’ve got to step up,” said St. Jules, who averages 10 points per game. “I had some low games this year, but when playoffs come, I know what to do.”
St. Jules strong first half was a blessing for the Yellowjackets, as leading scorers Ryan Davis and Louis Riordan struggled early, combining to shoot just 2-of-12 from the floor in the half. St. Jules got help from fellow senior Ramone Reed, who showed surprising touch from the outside. Reed scored eight points in the first half to go with four rebounds, and the rugged forward ended the game with 12 and nine.
But the real story was the ferocious Berkeley defense, which harrassed the San Leandro guards all game. St. Jules, Davis and junior guards Muhammed Nitoto and Darryl Perkins provided constant pressure, and the vaunted Pirate backcourt struggled mightily. Shooting guard Shawn Broadnax, who came into the game averaging 20 points per game, scored just four and was in foul trouble all night thanks to Reed’s hounding defense. Point guard Tyrce Gardner tied St. Jules with 23 points, but 20 came in the second half after the outcome was clearly decided.
The Berkeley crowd was raucous for much of the game, and Nitoto brought the house down at the finish, flying across the court to block the final Pirate shot. Nitoto, who had two blocks and three steals in the game, had an MRI on his knee recently and was questionable for the game.
“I feel like I let the team down when I don’t play,” he said. “I just threw on a knee brace and let it go. It hurts now, but during the game I didn’t feel it that much.”
Davis and Riordan both came around in the second half, and ended up with 10 and 11 points, respectively. They combined with fellow seniors Reed and St. Jules to score 56 of Berkeley’s 68 points, indicating that they aren’t quite ready to pull off their ’Jacket jerseys for the last time just yet.
“We’re seniors, and we’ve got nothing to lose,” St. Jules said. “We just play good ball together.”
Next up is a greater challenge, No. 1 seed De La Salle on Friday. The consensus top team in the section, the Spartans bring as much depth as Berkeley, and are heavy favorites to move on to the championship game. But don’t tell that to the ’Jackets.
“I can’t wait for De La Salle. I want (star guard) Joe See. I gotta have him, and Coach already gave me the green light to take him,” St. Jules said. “We’re all ready for all of them.”
“They’re driving the fastest car on the track,” Gragnani said. “But I’ve been telling these kids since November that we can defend anyone. We’re going to give it our best shot.”