Nathan Mollat/Daily Journal
Aragon’s Toby Liebergesell leans into Vanden’s Jawan Mathews to put up a shot during the Dons’ 88-85 loss to the Vikings in the first round of the Division III Nor Cal tournament.
Everything was going in favor of the Aragon boys’ basketball team in its first-round matchup against Vanden in the Northern California tournament Wednesday night in San Mateo.
The seventh-seeded Dons had basically led the entire game and had a six-point lead, 84-78, with just under two minutes to play.
Then, the worst thing that could have happened to the Dons, did: point guard Alex Manu, who finished with a game-high 28 points, fouled out with 1:15 left to play.
Sensing its opening, Vanden (20-11) took advantage, finishing the game on a 11-1 run to pull out an 88-85 win for the 10th-seeded Vikings and ending the Dons’ season.
“We were ready for them. … Too bad someone had to lose,” said Aragon coach Sam Manu. “I thought we had it. … So much heart. [We] played great. It’s a tough way to go out.”
It wasn’t the point production Aragon (20-10) missed with Alex Manu sitting on the bench. It was his ball-handling abilities the Dons desperately needed and without the Dons’ best ball handler, they could not deal with Vanden’s full-court press.
“We needed a ball handler at the end,” Sam Manu said. “All the turnovers (at the end of the game) were ball handler turnovers.
“I take [Alex Manu] for granted. You don’t really understands what he provides until he’s not there.”
The Vikings tied the score at 85 on a DeMarre Walker 3-pointer with 32 seconds to play. They then stole the inbound pass and were fouled, making 1 of 2 free throws for an 86-85 lead — only the third lead of the night for the Vikings.
Vanden then made 1 of 2 free throws for an 87-85 lead. The Dons got the ball in and eventually into the hands of Toby Liebergesell, but his pull-up jumper with a hand in face hit the back iron and was rebounded by the Vikings. Walker, again, made 1 of 2 free throws with 1.4 seconds left and the Dons’ pass to halfcourt was intercepted to end the game.
“[Vanden] got a lot of easy baskets,” Manu said. “Their athleticism around the rim hurt us.”
Until that final minute, it appeared the Dons were going to win the game not on the backs of their three star players, but their supporting cast. It seemed every player who played in the game for Aragon contributed something. Trevor Pagaduan, a starter, finished with seven points, including a crucial 3-pointer that pushed Aragon’s lead to 84-77 with 1:51 left. Jacob Andriola, starting in place of injured center Kono Filimoehala-Egan, scored a layup off a fastbreak and pulled down three rebounds. Billy Mason came off the bench late in the second quarter and drained a 3 from the right corner just before the halftime buzzer. Keith Samujh came in and scored a pair of second-half buckets, while Tristan Naicker grabbed a key rebound.
“That’s what we always want it to be (a total team effort),” Sam Manu said.
Vanden was barely settled in before Aragon blitzed the Vikings to open the game. After the Vikings took a 2-0 lead, Aragon went on a 13-0 run — highlighted by 3s from Manu and Kevin Hahn, and a three-point play from Liebergesell.
The Dons led 19-8 after a Pagaduan putback with 3:39 left in the first quarter before the Vikings finally found their legs. They ended the quarter on a 14-8 run to pull to 27-22 after the opening eight minutes.
Twice in the second quarter the Vikings manage to pull into a tie with the Dons, but each time Aragon responded. Mason’s 3 with 15 seconds left in the first half gave the Dons a 41-28 lead at the break.
The second half saw both teams simply run and gun.
“It looked like an NBA All-Star game,” Sam Manu said.
Again, Vanden managed to tie, but Aragon never let the Vikings take the lead. A long-distance 3 from Hahn put the Dons up 58-52 with 3:08 left in the third and when Pagaduan hit 1 of 2 free throws, Aragon maintained its three-point lead, 61-58, going into the final eight minutes.
In the fourth quarter, every time the Dons seemed on the verge of putting the Vikings away, they rallied. Aragon took a 70-64 on a Liebergesell tip in, but the Vikings came back with four straight points.
The Dons pushed it back to four, 74-70, on an Alex Manu baseline drive, but a 3 from Vanden’s Walker pulled the Vikings to 74-73 and when Vandell Shaw converted a layup with 3:41 to play, it gave the Vikings their first lead since the opening minute.
Aragon responded with a three-point play from Alex Manu, which sparked a 9-2 Dons’ spurt that gave them an 84-77 lead with 1:51 to play.
And then the roof caved in on the Dons.
Despite the heart-breaking loss, Sam Manu was extremely proud of his squad — especially the way they handled the much more athletic Vikings.
“A lot of teams look at us, a bunch of white guys (and think they’re going to run us out of the gym),” Sam Manu said. “But that’s our team: all heart and all skill. You want a baller? We have them.”
In other Nor Cal action, Menlo-Atherton (18-10), the No. 11 seed in Division I, saw its season come to an end with a 53-45 loss to No. 6 Rodriguez-Fairfield (27-3).
In Division II, No. 4 Serra (21-8) has its opponent for Saturday night when the Padres host No. 5 Montgomery-Santa Rosa (26-6), which beat No. 12 Del Oro (28-3) 53-51.
In Division III, No. 4 Burlingame’s oppponent is set. The Panthers will host No. 12 Miramonte-Orinda (17-12) at 6 p.m. Saturday. The Matadors upset No. 5 Fairfield (25-7) 74-70 in overtime.
Division IV saw both Half Moon Bay and Sacred Heart Prep advance to the second round.
No. 3 Half Moon Bay cruised to a 67-39 win over No. 14 Marshall-SF. The Cougars (25-5) will host No. 11 Fortuna (26-3) at 6 p.m. Saturday. Fortuna which destroyed No. 6 Natomas-Sacramento, 75-30.
No. 7 Sacred Heart Prep (21-7) also advanced with a 56-52 win over No. 10 Colfax (17-14). Corbin Koch scored a team-high 19 points for the Gators, while James McLean added 13. The Gators will play the At No. 2 Salesian-Richmond (21-14) at 6 p.m. Saturday.