The St. Mary’s High boys basketball team executed its game plan perfectly Saturday night and defeated Salesian 69-56 in front of a packed house at Albany High. The win gave the Panthers their second straight Bay Shore Athletic League title and their fifth win the last two seasons over their league rival.
St. Mary’s guard John Sharper led all scorers with 20 points, including a 3-point rainmaker from NBA range with under two minutes remaining in the game. The hoop, which was the Panthers’ first in more than four minutes, stopped a Salesian comeback run dead in its tracks.
“We had to make them play our game,” Sharper said after the Panthers’ 19th consecutive victory. “We needed to run and we had to pressure them.”
Salesian (20-9) knew going into the game that it didn’t want to get sucked into playing St. Mary’s (25-2) up-tempo brand of offense. But the Panthers didn’t give the overmatched Chieftains the option to play any other way.
“They just wear you down,” said Salesian head coach Bill Mellis. “They get you to play their game.”
The Chieftains scored the game’s first points on a 3-pointer by 6-foot-3 junior Kevin Richardson, but poor foul shooting (6-of-21) by Salesian and deadly outside shooting by St. Mary’s proved too much for the Chieftains to overcome. The Panthers led by three at the end of the first quarter and stretched it to double-digits at halftime, 33-23.
Out of the locker room St. Mary’s caught fire, scoring the first seven points and stretching its lead to 55-36 at the end of the third. Salesian staged a rally late in the fourth quarter and pulled to within 10 points, but the sharp-shooting Panthers held on.
All season St. Mary’s has relied on a trio of senior stars – Sharper, DaShawn Freeman and Chase Moore – to lead the fast-paced offense and pressure defense. Freeman scored 11 Saturday night and Moore, who sat out much of the first half with two fouls, added eight.
“As long as we kept pushing the ball up court, we knew we’d be fine,” Moore said. “If we gave them an ounce of confidence they were going to take advantage.”
Fellow St. Mary’s seniors Terrence Boyd and Tim Fanning came up with some key buckets, especially in the second half. Boyd scored nine points, all after the break, including a 3-pointer to open the third quarter. Fanning, meanwhile, came off the bench at the start of the second period and drained two 3’s. In the middle, 6-foot-8 junior Simon Knight tossed in six points, while freshman Larry Gurganious added seven.
“These kids are tough,” said St. Mary’s head coach Jose Caraballo. “(Many are) seniors, they have a lot of pride. They play like champions.”
St. Mary’s beat Salesian earlier this season 70-57 and won all three meetings against the Chieftains last year, including a victory in the North Coast Section championship game.
“It’s always tough to play them because it’s such a rivalry and there’s so much emotion involved,” Caraballo said.
The Panthers went on to win the Division IV State Championship last season, but won’t repeat this year because they will compete in Division I.
Caraballo said at the start of the season that he’s set his goals higher for this year and he still thinks that St. Mary’s is one of the best teams at any level. That will be put to the test starting on Tuesday, as the Panthers start the North Coast Section playoffs with a matchup against Antioch High. Caraballo’s squad earned the No. 2 seed and will get a home game in the first round, with tipoff scheduled for 8 p.m. De La Salle High got the top seed.
After the game Saturday, he wondered what a matchup between two of Northern California’s top teams might yield when the championship game is played at Berkeley’s 12,000-seat Haas Pavilion.
“Can you imagine us and De La Salle at Haas? How many people we’d have there?” Caraballo said with a grin. “We’ve just got to get there.”