By Terry Bernal
Daily Journal Staff
PORTOLA VALLEY — Kyle McGraw is one of the best players you’ve never heard of on the Peninsula.
Starring for the small private school upstart Nueva Mavericks, however, the senior big man is no secret within the Division V ranks. And while St. Francis-Watsonville was keen to key on the 6-5 senior throughout Friday’s CCS boys’ basketball semifinal showdown at Woodside Priory, the depth of Nueva School prevailed to prove the team is far from a one-man show.
The No. 3-seed Mavericks (21-4 overall) rallied back from a slow start to take down No. 2 St. Francis-Watsonville 65-54. With the win, Nueva — in just its third year of CCS eligibility — advances to the program’s first-ever section championship game.
“It was a lot of fun,” Nueva head coach Chris Brandin said. “It was a big program win. … It was a big win for the kids. They just played so, so hard. I am just so proud of them.”
There was a lot to be proud of. McGraw showed why he is bound for the NCAA Division III ranks at Caltech next season, totaling a team-high 17 points and nine rebounds. But the senior was just one of three Nueva players to score in double figures, as the Sharks consistently keyed on the Private School Athletic League North Division Most Valuable Player.
McGraw’s post counterpart, junior David Shields, added 15 points, while senior forward Cooper Mills scored 14. The Mavericks finished shooting a mighty 52.1 percent from the field.
“Both (Shields and Mills) really stepped up and finished,” Brandin said. “… The two of them just came up huge. And that’s what we’re going to need. People are going to key on Kyle, he’s the best player. And they really stepped up. We found our spacing, Kyle found them when he needed to and we finished.”
The unsung heroes that turned the game around, though, were Nueva’s guard tandem of junior Jeremy Dumalig and, Kyle McGraw’s younger brother, freshman Connor McGraw.
“The key for us was for them to be flying around,” Brandin said. “They’ve got a lot of responsibility in our defense. Flying around, finding the shooters and getting out on the shooters.”
St. Francis (17-7) came out blazing from beyond the arc. After the Sharks jumped out to an 8-2 lead, they shot 3 of 4 beyond the arc in the opening quarter. Senior guard Andrew Seymour had two of those 3-pointers, and went on to hit six 3s in the game to score a game-high 18 points.
Had it not been for Dumalig and Connor McGraw adjusting their perimeter defense in the second quarter, though, Seymour would have gone for a heck of a lot more.
“Coming in we knew the game plan, we knew who their shooters were,” Demalig said. “And we’ve played teams with shooters before. … Our legs, we had to get loosened up in the first quarter. And we were in a little foul trouble. But we hung in there.”
Nueva benefitted from some big runs. They went on a 10-0 spree in the first quarter, taking their first lead when Kyle McGraw kicked an assist pass out to Shields, who dropped his first of three 3s on the night.
In the second quarter, trailing 17-15, Nueva opened with consecutive buckets by Connor McGraw to spark a 10-2 run. Then the Maverick’s interior defense fed off their guards’ stingy perimeter performance. Nueva totaled eight blocked shots in the game, five of them coming in the second quarter.
The Mavericks finished the half on a 9-2 run to take a 34-24 lead into the break. They opened up a 40-28 lead midway through the third quarter when St. Francis went on a mini 7-0 run. But Kyle McGraw finished the quarter with a flourish, taking a bounce pass from Shields and hammering to the hoop to give Nueva a 42-35 lead going into the fourth quarter.
Then to start the fourth, Kyle McGraw returned the favor for one his five assists, kicking a pass out to Shields who dropped a 3 to open the period.
But St. Francis’ long-range looks kept things interesting. The Sharks shot 34.6 percent from the field, but they put up 25 3-point attempts, converting 10. Half of those 3s came in the final quarter.
“Our two guards have really carried us this year,” St. Francis head coach Ed Kelly said. “And Seymour got on a roll there for a little bit.”
Kelly’s son, senior guard E.J. Kelly, tallied two 3s in the fourth quarter, his second coming in transition off a steal by senior C.J. Gomez to close the score to 57-51 with 1:02 to play. But Nueva shot 6 of 7 from the line down the stretch, and Kyle McGraw produced the most impressive of his three blocks, lurching up the sideline to swat a 3-point attempt from the corner with 24 seconds left.
“It’s pretty crazy, especially in my final year,” McGraw said of heading to the championship game. “We played this team the last two years and lost to them, so it was really good getting a win.”
The Mavericks now look to Saturday and a CCS Division V championship showdown with No. 1 Eastside College Prep, as the Panthers took down Pinewood 63-45 in the bracket’s other semifinal.