The last thing Bellarmine head coach Patrick Schneider told his team as they held a two-point lead over No. 3-seed Menlo-Atherton heading into the closing seconds of Saturday’s Central Coast Section Division I title game was simple.
“We don’t want to give up a made 2. But don’t give up a 3,” Schneider said.
Menlo-Atherton (18-9) got a chance at each in the waning second, but could not convert either, as No. 4-seed Bellarmine (12-16) persevered 43-41 to capture its third straight CCS crown and its 12th all time.
With eight seconds remaining in regulation, M-A took a timeout trailing by two to reset its half-court offense. Bears head coach Mike Molieri wanted to get the ball into the hands of guard Leland Callahan. That they did. The 5-10 guard had a seemingly open look out of the corner from beyond the arc. He took the shot, but Bellarmine senior Amador Nazarov somehow covered seemingly insurmountable ground to block it.
“[Callahan] got to the corner, he got open, and I was like— oh man, I let this game end on a 3 from a guy who’s a lot shorter than me,” Nazarov said. “So, I knew I had the chance to block the shot. I just sprinted as high as I could and jumped as high as I could. It wasn’t a big block but it was a tip. I did the best I could there.”
Off the deflection, the live ball bounded towards the key with the final five seconds winding down. Callahan again came up with it and forced a jumper in traffic. The hurried shot got away clean, but came up short as the buzzer sounded.
“We wanted to win the game, quite frankly, at the end of the game,” Molieri said. “I didn’t think we had a lot in us going into overtime.”
Bellarmine actually scored the eventual game-winning bucket off a blocked shot as well. With 43 seconds remaining in the game, M-A’s Deverick Meacham made a physical effort to swat a shot on the inside. However, Nazarov came up with the loose ball and laid it in to give the Bells a 43-41 edge.
After taking the lead in the closing seconds of the first half, Bellarmine led throughout the third quarter and into the fourth. But Bears senior Royce Branning hit a shot to give M-A its first lead of the second half with 6:17 remaining in the fourth quarter. The lead would ultimately change hands four times in the quarter.
But all the breaks started going Bellarmine’s way from there.
On M-A’s next possession, Branning had a chance to add to the lead on a 1-on-1 attempt, but missed. Thirty seconds later, Bears big man Oliver Bucka rolled an ankle and had to leave the game after being noticeably hobbled.
As a result, the Bears shifted to a zone defense after playing exclusively man-to-man throughout the game, and for most of the season, but Bellarmine was able of quickly taking advantage of the loss of M-A’s senior center.
Bells freshman Anjelo Athens suddenly found a lane to the hoop to give Bellarmine a 36-35 lead. M-A responded when Grant Henninger hit a hook shot with 3:15 remaining to put the Bears back up, 37-36. But Bellarmine senior Dylan Tarpening answered by hitting a clutch 3 to give the Bells a 39-37 lead, and they would not trail again.
“It’s a tough game but sometimes shots will fall for you, sometimes they won’t,” Branning said. “It seemed like, for Bellarmine, they were falling, and for us they couldn’t quite get there.”
That wasn’t the case in the first half. Bellarmine shot just 4 for 19 in the half. With a pair of clutch 3-pointers from senior guard Max Le, and another from junior guard Kyle Owens, the Bells hit just one 2-point shot in the half. However, M-A committed 15 fouls in the first half, allowing Bellarmine to convert 10 points via free throws, including a pair by Le with nine second remaining to give the Bells the lead going into halftime.
“We were a little overly aggressive, but we were close enough at half,” Molieri said. “So, that really didn’t hurt us. We got away with it. … The second half was our kind of score in the 40s. … They were one basket better than us.”
Nazarov tabbed a game-high 10 points for Bellarmine. Branning and senior Markus Guegler shared a team-high eight point apiece for M-A. The Bears out rebounded the Bells 27-18 throughout, but after a 16-8 difference in the first half, the Bells stayed nearly even in the second half. Bucka had a game-high eight rebounds for the Bears, but only one came in the second half.
“Menlo-Atherton’s coaching staff just does a phenomenal job,” Schneider said. “They have more plays that they run really well than I’ve seen in my 25 years of high-school coaching. They do a great job running their plays, they do a super job highlighting the skills of players. It was a really hard scout job to get ready for them.”
For M-A, Saturday’s game marked the fifth appearance in a CCS title game in program history. The Bears won back-to-back crowns in 1988 and ’89 then went on to finish as runner-up in ’07 and ’08.
With this year’s squad not having seen M-A advance past the second round of CCS in their four year’s at the school, the sting of Saturday’s loss was noticeable.
“We love each other, we play for each other, and when it’s close games we look in others eyes and say: Let’s do this right here,” Branning said. “This one stings a bit because we’re brothers.”