After opening the Leo LaRocca Sand Dune Classic boys basketball tournament with a heartbreaking loss to Acalanes, Berkeley High was eliminated from contention in the holiday tournament and placed in the consolation bracket. It would have been very tempting for the Yellowjackets to phone in the tournament’s remaining two games and begin looking forward to a fresh start in 2002.
Instead the ‘Jackets rebounded, beating Fremont handily Friday night, then capping their 2001 on Saturday night with a 64-56 victory over Cardinal Newman to claim the tournament’s consolation bracket championship.
Berkeley now enters 2002, and league play, with a head of steam. The ’Jackets went undefeated in ACCAL play last season before losing to De La Salle in the North Coast Section playoffs.
“We open up with Richmond in league,” Berkeley head coach Mike Gragnani said. “We’re going to take some time off, then go back to work next week, get three or four good days of practice in, and try to defend our crown.”
The Yellowjackets wasted no time Saturday night, opening up a 10-3 lead in the first few minutes on five layups, three of them by center Damien Burns.
“We had a great start,” Gragnani said. “We really executed well offensively. I think we shot 81 percent in the first five minutes... [the players] executed our system.”
It isn’t hard to shoot 81 percent on a steady diet of layups, which is exactly what Berkeley’s well-spaced offensive system provided in Saturday night’s first half. Yellowjackets, most frequently forward Robert-Hunter Ford, repeatedly snuck behind Cardinal defenders for uncontested shots.
Burns had 11 of his game-high 19 points, and Hunter-Ford 10 of his 14, in the first half as Berkeley opened up a 37-20 halftime lead.
“They really did good reading the defender tonight,” Gragnani said. “When the defender lost vision, we made the back-cuts... it means we’re learning how to play.”
The 17-point halftime lead stretched to 22 early in the third period on consecutive 3-point plays by senior Jesse Alter. Gragnani was complimentary of Alter’s play in the tournament after the game, calling the back-to-back driving buckets and their ensuing foul conversions “huge.”
But the Cardinals weren’t quite done yet. They promptly answered with a 10-point run, cutting the lead to 12 and precipitating a Berkeley timeout. They would further whittle away during the remainder of the third quarter, finally drawing within nine, 49-40, at the start of the fourth quarter.
The ‘Jackets immediately turned to their big man to stem the Cardinal tide. Burns responded with two quick buckets that lifted the Berkeley lead back into double digits, where it would stay until the final two minutes.
Cardinal Newman would make the final score look closer than it actually was by making four desperation three-pointers as time expired.
Senior guard Nate Walker, who poured in three of those last-minute three-pointers, matched Burns’ game-high 19 points. Teammate Dave Robb, who led all scorers with 26 in Friday’s Cardinal victory over Saint Ignatius, was held to only 10.
Gragnani smiled as he shuffled out of the empty Saint Ignatius gym, where he used to be an assistant coach before taking over at Berkeley High.
“I’m tired,” he said. “We’re taking three days off now. They earned it, and I’m looking forward to it.”