SANTA CLARA — Sophomore J.T. Byrne scored 10 of his game-high 14 points in the third quarter as Carmel dominated the second half of Saturday’s CCS Division IV championship game, holding Santa Cruz to just nine points and winning 50-35.
“The beauty of our team is that even when they’re crashing down on the post, we have so many good outside players that they can’t guard everything,” Byrne said. “When we hit the outside in the first half, everything opened up down low.”
The first half was dominated by guard play, with the Cardinals taking a 26-24 lead into the break behind four Zavier Hill-Kemp 3-pointers. Carmel (22-4) started to wear third-seeded Santa Cruz down in the third by forcing it inside to Byrne and tightening up on perimeter defense.
“They have some very skilled players and we really wanted to crowd them, make them put the ball on the floor and not let them get their feet set so they could get a good look,” head coach Kurt Grahl said. “I feel like we did a much better job of communicating and doing that in the second half.”
Robert Bishop III was the only player able to do anything offensively for Santa Cruz (21-7) in the second half, scoring seven of his nine after the break. He was responsible for both of the Cardinals’ second half field goals. Until a free throw with 22.9 seconds left by Makai Norman, who matched Bishop III with nine points, they had just three points in the final quarter.
It certainly didn’t help Santa Cruz’s case to be playing without Jeremiah Elmore, who’s been out for the last three weeks with a broken wrist.
“It’s a big loss for us, especially toughness-wise,” head coach Lawan Milhouse said of Elmore’s absence.
Hill-Kemp was held scoreless in the second half, aided by the significant stretch of the third quarter that he missed with a cut on his lip. Sophomore guard Scotty Pramuk, who dropped 20 in Thursday’s semifinal win over Sacred Heart Prep, was also held scoreless.
“It’s a good learning lesson for him as a sophomore,” Milhouse said. “When you get this far, teams start crowding your space. You’ve got to learn to get yourself open and create some shots.”
Elmore’s absence affected the second half as the top-seeded Padres put additional focus on working the ball inside, both with Byrne and with their guards.
“We knew they were a little thin, so we knew that if we could attack the rim and get the ball into the paint, we’d be able to bring home the championship,” Grahl said.
Zach DeZee and Kai Lee each scored 11 for the victors. Carmel made just two 3-pointers, with one in the first quarter by Ethan Fletcher and one by DeZee in the second to send the Padres into the break down by just two. Santa Cruz had opened up a seven-point lead on back-to-back threes by Norman and Hill-Kemp, but Carmel closed the half by outscoring the Cardinals 5-0 over the final three minutes.
Robert Brown III was productive alongside Byrne in the paint, coming off the bench for seven points and 10 rebounds as part of a Carmel team that showed impressive depth and youth. Of the nine players that saw the time for the Padres, four were juniors and Byrne is just a sophomore.
“We’ve got great coaches down at the lower levels, and it’s been through the entire program,” Grahl said. “We’ve been building it over the last three years, and we’ve had the system in place at all levels.”
While Carmel was basking in the novelty of a championship, the Cardinals found themselves in a familiar place, having lost a CCS championship game for a second consecutive year.
“In the second half, we played as individuals on both ends,” Milhouse said. “We did a great job of playing together in the first half. Second half, it wasn’t there. It leaves a sour taste in our mouths.”
Santa Cruz is 1-4 in section title games this decade, with the one championship coming in 2015 to cap off Milhouse’s inaugural season. He inherited the program from Patrick Jones, whose daughter, Haley, is the top girls basketball recruit in the nation.