The Menlo-Atherton boys’ basketball team can thank a coin flip for fueling its drive to the Central Coast Section Division I championship game against Bellarmine 8 p.m. at Independence High School Saturday.
The Bears tied with Sequoia for fourth place in the Peninsula Athletic League’s South Division, but the Cherokees got the final playoff spot from the South Division into the PAL Tournament after winning a coin flip against M-A.
“We’ve used that as a driving force (to get to the CCS finals),” said M-A coach Mike Molieri. “We’ve just been playing a lot better recently.”
Molieri said it was his team’s inconsistent offense early in PAL play that cost his squad a chance to compete for the PAL tournament title. But the Bears knew if they played to their capabilities, they could compete — and beat — anyone, as evidenced by non-league wins over Sacred Heart Prep, Half Moon Bay, Menlo School and Valley Christian. They also have a quality 50-42 loss to St. Francis-Mountain View.
“We’ve played a lot of tough teams at difficult venues — at Half Moon Bay, at St. Francis,” Molieri said. “I purposely make (our non-league schedule) challenging. I’m not worried about [a .500 record], I’m worried about getting better.”
And since a 62-53 loss to Sequoia Jan. 31, the Bears have won 6-0 in a row, including two straight in CCS play.
A seventh win in a row would give M-A its first boys’ section title since beating Cupertino 67-56 in the Division II championship game. Its the Bears’ first appearance in the finals since a 71-46 loss to Mitty in the 2008 final.
“The kids are excited,” Molieri said.
The Bears will use a patient and methodical half-court offense to try and slow down the Bells, who Molieri expects will want to get out in transition and run.
The Bears, however, are well suited to the half-court game with the sharp-shooting prowess of guard Royce Branning and the inside presence of post player Oliver Bucka, who has come on strong over the second half of the year.
“We’re playing a lot better on offense, now with Oliver in the middle and Royce getting back his stroke,” Molieri said. “Finally, our big guy (Bucka) started playing a lot better offensively and defensively and on the boards.”
Bucka really stepped up when Branning went into a scoring slump midway through the PAL season. Molieri said he was expecting that all season from Bucka, but attributed some of Bucka’s early-season troubles to dealing with the football recruiting process.
“After that process went away in January, we started to play better ball,” Molieri said. “It’s been huge. We expect that from Oliver.”
The Bears will need to be on top of their game to knock off Bellarmine. A tough year in West Catholic Athletic League made the Bells record look worse than the talent they have, but Molieri doesn’t put a lot of stock in Bellarmine’s record.
“[The Bells] know how to win. They have numerous Division I titles. They’re going to be battle tested,” Molieri said. “But that’s why we play St. Francis, why we play Sacred Heart Prep, play Valley Christian, scrimmage against Serra. We at least know how it feels (to play CCS caliber teams) and what to do to play at that level.”